For any of you thinking that the 26th annual Alabama/Mississippi All-Star Classic is JUST some meaningless all-star game, you should have talked to Junior Graham Saturday afternoon.
I did, moments after Mississippi’s comeback attempt fell short in a 21-16 loss at the Cramton Bowl.
“It hurts just like losing that state championship game two weeks ago,” said Graham of Eupora, the Mississippi head coach. “We had a chance to represent Mississippi today and we came up on the short end of the stick. I promise you I am not going to leave here smiling and my wife probably won’t enjoy the ride back home because I don’t talk a lot after a loss.”
And boy, has Mississippi had its share of losses in this series.
It was the fifth consecutive loss for Mississippi, which has lost 15 of the last 18 games. Alabama now leads the series 19-7. The only thing more lopsided than that is the number of times Mississippi has traveled to play this game in the state of Alabama. (Alabama leads THAT series 26-0, but that could possibly change in the future.)
But that’s a story for another day.
This day was all about the missed opportunities.
Mississippi’s defense, led by Houston defensive end and Mississippi Most Valuable Player Chris Jones, was splendid early on.
Then came the momentum-swinging play.
Mississippi trailed just 3-0 late in the second quarter, but drove to the Alabama 3-yard line.
Oxford quarterback Parker Adamson, who got off to a scorching 7-for-7 start to begin the game, then threw a pass that he probably would love to have back. Alabama’s Jonathan Cook stepped in front of the pass in the end zone and sprinted 57 yards before Adamson chased him down to avoid a 100-yard return.
“It was just a breakdown in communication,” said Graham. “That pick changed the ballgame. I thought at halftime we could have easily been up 10-3.”
Instead, Mississippi found itself trailing 9-0 after field goals of 30, 35 and 51 yards by Thomas Hamlin.
“We came to play 48 minutes and that was our message at halftime,” Graham said.
Mississippi didn’t help its case on Alabama’s opening drive of the third quarter.
After a big stop on third down, Noxubee County’s Dylan Bradley was flagged for a personal foul that extended Alabama’s drive. The home team took advantage, scoring five plays later on Cedrix Reed’s 30-yard run to take a 15-0 lead with 8:23 left in the third. A roughing the punter penalty extended Alabama’s second drive of the half. The lead stretched to 21-0 early in the fourth quarter and Mississippi looked like it very well could be shut out for the first time in series history.
“The one thing I learned this week was that Mississippi fights and we’re going to be physical and we’re not going to back down,” said Brandon linebacker Tayler Polk.
Adamson connected with Charleston’s Kameron Myers for a 47-yard touchdown to get Mississippi on the board with 10:25 left. Bradley and Jones then combined for a safety with 4:25 left to cut it to 21-9 and make it a little interesting. It took just 13 seconds for Mississippi to cut it to 21-16 when Ocean Springs quarterback Wes Windham found Eupora’s Derrick Jones for a 41-yard score.
Mississippi didn’t get any closer though.
“I’m so proud because we never quit,” said Graham. “They had every opportunity to quit but they didn’t.”
Mississippi had its share of highlights, including Itawamba AHS running back Ashton Shumpert plowing over Alabama standout Reuben Foster, rated the nation’s No. 1 linebacker.
But Alabama had plenty more highlights, including several highlight-reel catches by MVP Jason Smith, an Auburn commit.
“They had what I call some lucky plays,” said Hattiesburg defensive back Tony Bridges, who was defending on Smith’s splendid one-handed grab. “I had good coverage. Knocked his hand down and he caught it with one hand. They made some great catches. You can’t do anything about that.”
Penalties didn’t help in a game filled with them: 29 in all.
Mississippi was penalized 15 times for 115 yards. Alabama was flagged 14 times for 127 yards.
“I thought we competed so hard and got very few breaks,” said Graham. “They caught tipped balls and maintained drives. We had some 5-yard penalties today that just broke our back.
“In this game, if you can’t stay in front of the chains on the offensive side of the ball, you’re going to struggle.”
Alabama outgained Mississippi 318 to 241.
But in the end, the only two numbers that mattered to Graham was the final score: 21-16.
“It’s a game, and I want to win it again,” said Graham.
One day, perhaps Mississippi will.