Savvy high school football fans knew what to expect when St. Stanislaus and Poplarville were set to clash on Friday night in the opening round of the state 4A high school football playoffs.
SSC built its success all season around a potent passing attack, while the Hornets proudly had a reputation of leaning heavily on their ground game. In the end, Poplarville's rushing success proved to be too much for the Rock-A-Chaws to weather.
The host Hornets never trailed in the game and pulled away in the second half en route to a 35-14 victory over SSC on a chilly evening that saw temperatures dip into the low 40s and a wind chill in the upper 30s. Poplarville, which improved to 6-5, advances to next week's second round and will square off against North Pike -- an upset winner over Quitman.
"They are good at what they do," said SSC coach Nathan Encrapera. "They run the ball so effectively. They can do it in their sleep.
"Their coaching staff does a great job preparing their kids to be successful at that," he added. "We knew what to expect, but you have to win first and second downs and put them in passing situations. We just didn't do that consistently tonight."
Poplarville outscored SSC by a 21-7 margin in the second half, including 14-0 in the fourth quarter, to secure the victory.
After the schools battled each other in a tight first half that saw Poplarville take a 14-7 advantage into the locker rooms at intermission, the Hornets effectively moved to ball down the field to start the third quarter with a 10-play, 69-yard that covered four and a half minutes.
They strung together eight runs and just two passes -- the second completion a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Blaise Breerwood to Casin Sones. The PAT pushed Poplarville's lead to 21-7.
SSC answered later in the third quarter when quarterback Max Favre hooked up with Connor Ladner for a 19-yard scoring strike. That capped a seven-play, 59-yard drive and trimmed the deficit to 21-14.
"We were right there going into the fourth quarter with a chance to do it," Encrapera said. "(Poplarville) has a lot of playoff experience and knows what playoff football is all about."
In that final quarter, Poplarville's Zac Owen found the end zone from three yards out on the 12th play of a drive -- 11 of which were runs. That score and subsequent PAT extended the Hornets' lead to 28-14.
With three minutes to play, Poplarville's Trae Wilson intercepted a Favre pass at his own 28-yard line. Three plays later, Owen burst through the line and galloped 66 yards for a TD that made it 35-14 and ultimately ended SSC's season. The Rock-A-Chaws finish the 2019 campaign with a 6-5 mark.
Poplarville got on the board first in the contest when Devin Hart intercepted a Favre pass deep in his own territory and returned it 35 yards untouched for a TD and a 7-0 lead with 4:30 to play in the opening quarter.
St. Stanislaus knotted the game at 7-7 when Favre hit Lee Negrotto with a 6-yard TD pass and Gene Hoffman added the PAT.
Poplarville found the end zone with five minutes left in the half. Chase Shears scored from 22 yards out and the PAT made it 14-7.
The Hornets, the reigning South 4A state champion, lived up to its billing on Friday, They ran the ball 48 times, while throwing just six passes.
On the flip side, SSC lived and died with its passing game. Favre aired the ball out on 43 of the Rock-A-Chaws' 52 offensive plays and was intercepted four times.
"This is a tough one to end with," said Favre, a senior. "They're a pretty good team but we didn't play our best tonight. It was a good year for us, but it could have been so much better."