What a game.
But more importantly, what a story.
Greenville Christian handed Oak Grove, Mississippi’s consensus No. 1 football team, a 48-41 defeat.
“This was one of those games where we had the opportunity to come and prove we belong with some of the best in the state,” Greenville Christian coach Jon Reed McLendon said. “Oak Grove has a heck of a program that’s first class. They are one of the perennial programs in the state. It was an opportunity for us, so we approached it that way.”
Despite being just a small private school from the delta, Greenville Christian proved at the very least that it’s in the conversation as the best team in the state with just roughly 35 players.
“I thought that was a heck of a football game,” Oak Grove coach Drew Causey said. “They are extremely talented. Both teams played their tails off.
“Those guys played great, but I’m proud of our guys too.”
Spearheading Greenville Christian’s offense was quarterback DJ Smith, who was responsible for six touchdowns and generated 470 of the Saints’ 644 offensive yards.
“(Smith) was big-time tonight,” McLendon said. “He deserves for everybody to know his name. The kid is phenomenal.”
After a scoreless first quarter, which featured each team forcing turnovers to end each others’ drives, the two powerhouses combined to score 53 points in the second quarter.
The Warriors got on the board first as Kabe Barnett scored on a 10-yard quarterback keeper to take a 7-0 lead.
However, in four minutes, Greenville Christian took a two-score lead.
Smith connected with wide receiver for a 65-yard touchdown. On the next drive, the Saints drove the ball 85-yards in four plays, which was capped off by Smith scoring on a 2-yard run.
On Oak Grove’s ensuing drive, Barnett threw an interception that was returned to the Warriors’ 1-yard line, which Smith ran in himself and gave Greenville Christian a 20-7 lead.
Thirteen seconds later, Oak Grove answered with PJ Woodland running an 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to narrow the lead to 20-14. Yet Smith and Bell connected again on a 77-yard touchdown to extend Greenville Christian’s lead to 26-14.
But back-to-back three and outs forced by Oak Grove’s defense allowed Barnett to throw two touchdown passes before the end of half as he connected with Tyrell Pollard on a 71-yard touchdown with 2 minutes and 42 seconds left. Barnett then found Jaylen Aborom for a 10-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left in the half to give Oak Grove a 27-26 lead.
Midway through the quarter, Greenville Christian found momentum as the Saints forced a safety and scored again on a 63-yard touchdown run by Marlon Palmer, who finished the night with 171 yards on 15 carries.
Then the night’s turning point almost came in the third quarter, as heat cramps plagued Greenville Christian with as many six players out of the game, including Smith. The Saints ran 78 plays by the end of the night.
“We had like five or six guys that started to cramp,” McLendon said. “This is the first game all year that we battled that, that severely. It was kind of weird tonight. It was a physical game tonight.
“You start looking around, and it’s not that we don’t have kids, but you think who can play certain positions. It started to get thin. You have to think about who can go where and you have to get creative with your personnel.”
Oak Grove got on the board again, with less than three minutes left in the third quarter as Barnett threw a 37-yard pass completion and broke out a 27-yard run that set up a 3-yard touchdown run for Dontavious Howard to tie the game at 34. Twenty seconds later, Woodland struck again as he came up with a pick-six to give Oak Grove a 41-34 lead.
Somehow the Saints overcame their personnel issues and answered on both sides of the ball to close the game. Behind Smith’s legs, Greenville Christian orchestrated a 12-play, 80-yard drive to tie the game again, which ended with Smith scoring on a 10-yard run. Then with five minutes left in the game, Smith gave the Saints the lead with a two-yard touchdown.
From there, Greenville Christian stopped Oak Grove’s offense twice from potentially tying the game. In the fourth quarter, the Saints stopped the Warriors twice on fourth down and forced a fumble in the game’s final minute.
“I think at this point, after tonight, you pull for Oak Grove to win the 6A championship, and you don’t have to worry about the argument,” McLendon said. “But I think we put ourselves in the conversation (of the best team in the state). I think that’s pretty special even for us to have that conversation of, ‘Are you the best team in the state?’ That’s huge. It’s humbling and unreal. We are excited to even be in that conversation.”
Oak Grove’s offense put up 355 yards in 63 plays, with Barnett going 10 of 27 and throwing for two touchdowns, two interceptions and 230 yards.
“We just happened to come up a couple of points short,” Causey said. “We had some costly turnovers and some penalties. Anytime you lose, it stinks, and it’s no fun.
“You have to be proud of both squads right there.”