As Drew Causey puts it, Oak Grove is playing the way we all knew they were capable of playing.
About five weeks ago, some doubt began to fester whether the Warriors could find themselves playing for hardware.
Since the Warriors’ 24-17 loss to Brandon, Oak Grove has been clicking on all cylinders. In the second half against Ocean Springs last week, the Warriors looked almost unbeatable.
Now, as Oak Grove makes its fourth straight South State championship appearance, the Warriors have a chance to erase their blemish as they rematch the Bulldogs on the road again.
In all four of Oak Grove’s South State championship appearances, the Warriors have to play a team for a second time. In two of the three previous meetings, Oak Grove lost in the regular season but came out on top in South State.
“For the most part, you have the factor that one team is going to be a little more hungry because they lost that first meeting,” Causey said. “At the end of the day, football is football. Whoever blocks and tackles and doesn’t turn the ball over is going to win the game.
“If we play as we did in those last 11 minutes of the second half of last week, we’ll be hard to beat.”
According to Causey, there are two significant differences for Oak Grove since playing Brandon. The first is the drastic change in his team’s mindset.
“I think this group, and I hope I’m right, has kind of waited until the playoffs have gotten here and said alright, now it’s time to play,” Causey said. “They did what they needed to do to get into the playoffs. There has just been a different mindset for all of our players at practice, in the locker room and on bus rides.
“They are a little bit more focused and a little bit more locked in and engaged. This senior class, all they know, is playing for a state title. They have an extra season under their belt than any other senior class that has been here before. They have got a lot of experience, and they know how to turn it on when it’s playoff time.”
The second difference is that the Warriors had several key injuries in their game against Brandon. Klabron Pollard, who is the mold of Oak Grove’s offensive line, was out. Several other players went down with injuries at the start of the game, while others were limited after returning from injuries.
“For us it’s more going up there and playing like we are capable of playing,” Causey said. “That’s something we didn’t do the first time. Sure, you can credit them, but there were some other factors involved with that. Klabron Pollard didn’t play, and he’s a big part of our offensive line. He didn’t play that week. We had two or three really key injuries at the start of that game or the week before that game. That was probably a factor on our side. They have an excellent football team and are extremely well-coached.”
However, another difference in Oak Grove is the development in its run game. For the majority of the season, Oak Grove has been limited in being able to run the ball with no true running back. It was by no means unusual to see the Warriors throw the ball in their first 10 plays of the game. This was due to running back JQ Gray, who is a wide receiver turned running back, maintaining the bulk of the workload with limited consistent support. It hasn’t been until the last two weeks that Dontavious Howard has created an equal workload.
“You got back to the first time we played Brandon, and we didn’t run the ball very well,” Causey said. “We did not play very physical upfront. We just didn’t play good. Dontavious was just coming off an injury where he had missed the previous two weeks. That whole week was kind of weird and never felt good. After that, we moved Braxton Miller over from playing outside linebacker to hardly coming off the field and playing H-back. He gives us a very physical presence.”
In addition, Cameron Shepoard and quarterback Kabe Barnett have found their legs since the start of the playoffs. This, in turn, has allowed Gray to become more involved in the passing game, which has created big plays for the Warriors in recent weeks.
“I think a lot of it is with Kabe is that when Kabe realizes that he is 6-foot-4 and (weighs) about 195, he can lay the wood to people like he did in Gulfport,” Causey said. “He can break a lot of tackles and score a lot of 50-yard runs like he did the other night. He’s pretty hard to defend. That’s not even talking about how well he throws the football. It’s a collection of everybody saying it’s time to play ball. When Kabe is on, he is one of the best there is.”
Of course, not only would a win bring Oak Grove back to the state championship game for a fourth straight season, the Warriors have a chance to win a state title. This is due to the fact that the venue for the state title games had to be changed to Southern Miss, with Jackson State hosting the SWAC championship game.
“It would be unbelievable,” Causey said. “It would be at home and a lot of fun. In the two times we played before, we packed out the home side one year and the visitor side one year. Our fans did a great job of showing out and supporting us. We would definitely love that opportunity to win one there, but we have a tough one this week, and we have to win that one first.”