LAUREL – The Little Brown Jug might not be headed back to Laurel, but the defending Class 5A State Champions got something sweeter: revenge.
The Golden Tornadoes drummed rival Hattiesburg 34-10 Friday, advancing to the second round of the playoffs in the process.
In the first contest between the two teams, the Tigers rallied late to take a 34-32 victory in August. Hattiesburg’s season ends at 8-5, while Laurel improves to 9-3.
Hattiesburg rushed out to a 10-6 lead Friday, led by quarterback Julian Conner. The junior spent much of the season hurt and it was unclear this week whether he would play against Laurel.
Conner’s impact was evident early, and a stifling Tiger defense had the Tornadoes on their heels. But with 1:56 left before half, the Golden Tornadoes unleashed Octavius Cooley.
In a textbook two-minute drill that included three passes to Cooley, Laurel marched down the field in a timely manner. With 23 seconds left on the clock, quarterback Keon Howard threw a fade to Cooley for a 13-yard touchdown, snatching the momentum from Hattiesburg.
Laurel never relinquished the lead and the touchdown before halftime was a big reason why.
“We picked up the tempo and got things rolling,” Laurel coach Todd Breland said. “This team feeds off of energy and they kind of responded to themselves right there.”
Coming out of halftime, the Golden Tornadoes used their new-found momentum to increase the lead even further thanks to Howard, but also Cooley. The Ole Miss commitment took a short pass from Howard, broke three tackles and raced into the end zone to increase the lead to 20-10.
Cooley struck again four minutes later, this time on a rushing score from the Wildcat formation for his third touchdown of the game. Howard added his fourth touchdown pass on the night, this one to Tyquan Ulmer, to ice the game.
On the flip side for Hattiesburg, its offense struggled to run the football, which Vance and the Tigers had wanted to do all week to take the pressure off Connor.
Laurel’s defense, which gave up only seven points per game since its last loss, held the Tigers scoreless in the second half, forcing two Conner interceptions and limiting him to just 160 yards through the air and 37 yards on the ground. Still, Vance was proud of his quarterback.
“That’s the way he’s been since I’ve been here,” Vance said. “One thing I never question is his heart. He showed a lot of heart tonight doing what he did to come in the game, playing banged up. Leaders, that’s what they do, they find a way to get things done.”
While the Tigers’ season ends, they will have plenty to look forward to as they prepare for the offseason and will look to continue to get better in the offseason.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Vance said. “I thought they came out tonight and played their butts off. They’re a little bit better than what we are right now. We just have to get better and get stronger and we got to get a little bit older, which next year brings all that. They had every opportunity to lay down during the season and quit, but they didn’t. Couldn’t be prouder of this group of guys.”