After a 3-4 start, close game after close game, the Petal Panthers (10-4) advanced to the Class 6A State Championship Game after a wild, 36-28 win over Meridian on Friday.
Both teams traded punches in the first two quarters, but at halftime, it was Meridian with a 21-14 lead.
Things looked bleak for Petal, as on Meridian’s opening possession in the second half, the Wildcats drove the field and capitalized on a 16-yard Jaquaris Dean touchdown run. But Petal answered back with a Stephon Huderson five-yard touchdown run.
Huderson struggled in the first half and only had 45 yards rushing at halftime. That changed in the second half as the junior tailback once again put the team on his back. With the Panthers pinned on their own six-yard line, Huderson broke loose for a 65-yard run to put his team in Wildcat territory.
A few plays later and Petal had it at the Meridian five. But, the very next play spelled disaster as Petal fumbled at the goal line and Meridian recovered. Meridian would get nailed for a hold in the end zone and give the Panthers the safety and new life headed into the fourth quarter as Petal trailed 28-23.
Petal drove down to the Meridian 10, but Samuel Hopper was picked off in the end zone by Quincy Lenton. Meridian then drove down to the Petal 32, but turned it over on downs.
The Panthers drove it once again inside the Wildcat red zone, but on fourth and 13, Hopper was once again picked off in the end zone. Meridian only needed to run out the rest of the 3:10 left on the clock to move on to the 6A State Championship.
But more than ever, Petal seemed to be the team of destiny and would not be denied, as on the very first play, Meridian’s Daniel Crowell coughed up the ball and the Panthers pounced on it.
Two plays later, Tanner Estill waltzed into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion was no good, but Petal had its first lead since the first quarter. Again, it seemed like Petal’s night, as on the ensuing possession Wildcat quarterback Tray Warren’s very first pass from scrimmage was picked off.
Huderson’s 67-yard touchdown run iced the win for Petal, who will move on to face Starkville on Friday, Dec. 4, for the 6A State Championship.
“To be honest, in the first half, our offensive line struggled,” Boyles said. “But in the second half our offensive line got going and when our offensive line gets going, Stephon (Huderson) gets going.”
Huderson said his offensive line backed him up and told him to keep working.
“My offensive line told me to just keep pushing and they would open something up for me,” Huderson said. “We kept fighting to the end and coach Boyles told us not to give up. This is right where we wanted to be. We’re going to have to practice hard and then play hard.”
“Our kids are just playing so well right now,” Boyles said. “Nobody gave us a chance at 3-4, our kids just kept believing. The loss to Brandon really turned our season around.”