Riding momentum, Petal set for rematch with Gulfport

By CAMAL PETRO,

Momentum is very important to have going into the playoffs, and the Petal Panthers have as much momentum as they’ve had all season. After a 1-6 start to the season, Petal won four straight games to clinch its postseason berth.

It actually locked up a spot after the third win of the streak, which made Thursday’s 42-7 win over Terry only important in terms of momentum going forward.

“Our kids are playing with a lot of confidence right now, which is really big,” Petal coach Marcus Boyles said. “Going out there Thursday night against Terry with nothing on the line for either team, I thought we played extremely well and we had a lot of kids play. Our starters did a great job for four quarters.”

Now, the Panthers turn their attention to a rematch with Gulfport (10-1), a team they lost to 33-28 in a Week 2 matchup. The Admirals’ senior quarterback TQ Newsome passed for 353 yards and rushed for 103 more with five total touchdowns in the contest, but Petal left the game feeling it let it get away.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Gulfport’s Milner Stadium. The winner will play the winner of Oak Grove-Harrison Central.

Gulfport lost the following week to Rummel, a New Orleans-area team, but it has ripped off eight straight wins over coast teams since. Boyles said the Admirals aren’t that much different on offense since the teams played in late August, but their improvement has come on defense.

“Defensively, they’re a lot different,” he said. “They went from a 3-4 (defensive front) to kind of a 4-2-5 and playing a lot of man coverage. They were playing a lot of zone coverage the first time and now it’s man coverage. Defensively is where they’ve made a lot of changes. I think they’re a lot better on defense now than the first time we’ve played them.”

During the eight-game streak, opponents are scoring 27 points per game, while Petal is averaging 31 points per game on the season.

The improvement on Petal’s side has been the play of junior quarterback DeCarlos Nicholson. The 6-foot-3 signal caller has settled into the position for the Panthers, and it’s given Nicholson a lot more confidence as the season progressed.

Petal runs the run-pass-option as part of its offense, and Nicholson is making better decisions now than he did earlier in the season, Boyles said.

“I think he’s just comfortable in the offense,” Boyles said. “He’s not afraid to make a mistake now, so if he pulls it to run it, he’s confident that he’s doing the right thing. When he pulls it to throw the RPO, he’s confident that it’s the right decision. He’s not hesitant and he’s not worried about the bad decisions and what we’re going to say.

“I think early in the year he was afraid to make a mistake, for whatever reasons, so he was playing very tentatively. Now, he’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s running our offense, and as he goes, we go.”

The Gulfport offense has been explosive all year, and it has a lot to do with Newsome’s play. The Southern Miss commit has 1,825 passing yards with 19 touchdowns and only two interceptions on 68 percent passing, and he also leads the team with 896 rushing yards and 14 scores on 137 carries.

Against rival Biloxi last week, Newsome left the game due to an ankle sprain, but he’s expected to play Friday night against Petal. With the score 7-7 last week, junior Dawson Malley entered the game for Newsome and passed for two touchdowns and had an interception on 7-of-11 attempts to lead Gulfport to a 34-20 over the Indians.

This will be the third time Petal has matched up with Newsome in the last two years, and Boyles has seen the future Southern Miss running back grow at the position. 

“Kind of like DeCarols, (Newsome is) a lot more comfortable in the offense, and they’re doing a good job of calling plays where he’s very successful,” Boyles said. “It’s like most good quarterbacks. When a play needs to be made in a crucial situation, that quarterback makes it.”