A classic playoff matchup ended in suspense, drama, heartbreak and controversy.
After an epic game, the Clarksdale Wildcats literally fell inches short in the final minute of the second-round thriller against Louisville by a final score of 16-12.
Despite many skillful plays and exciting moments, the game will be remembered for its one decisive play. Clarksdale faced a fourth down and goal play, from the one-yard line, with less than a minute to go. Wildcats quarterback Kelley Jones took the snap and lunged toward the end zone, only to be stopped by the Louisville defense.
The game’s last play launched a controversy, as Louisville used 12 players to stop Clarksdale, although only 11 players are allowed to participate at one time.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my career. It was heartbreaking for our kids,” explained Clarksdale Head Football Coach Henry Johnson. “Our players and coaches worked so hard and came so far. This is a tough way to end the season.”
The Clarksdale Press Register contacted Rickey Neaves, the executive director of the MHSAA (Mississippi High School Athletic Association), who quickly responded with the following statement: “It was reported and upon viewing the video confirmed 12 players on the field for the last play. Unfortunately, there were no flags thrown and the game will stand as called. The crew will be sanctioned by this office.”
A source with knowledge of the MHSAA confirmed that the sanctions described by the MHSAA will include the officiating crew being suspended for the remainder of the playoffs.
Before that decisive play, Clarksdale faced the daunting task of mounting a scoring drive from their 24-yard line with less than four minutes remaining. While most teams run passing plays to move the ball down the field as quickly as possible, Johnson and his team relied on their running game that had devastated their opponents all season long. They had controlled the second half, running almost at will and outscoring Louisville after halftime.
That fateful last drive featured five outstanding runs by Jones, the junior quarterback, who faked a RPO (run-pass option) and ran behind the center, right guard and tailback. After halftime, the outstanding Louisville defense never had an answer for running plays featuring Jones. The blocking by wide receiver Korea McKay Jr. also contributed mightily to Clarksdale’s running success on the right side during its final drive.
The final Clarksdale play will go down in history, but the entire game was an epic, dramatic struggle from the opening drive.
Louisville took the opening possession and drove inside the Clarksdale five-yard line, aided in part by a controversial fourth-down conversion. The Clarksdale defense rose up and stopped Louisville at the two yard line, forcing a field goal to make the early score 3-0.
By halftime, Louisville led 10-0. Clarksdale had not yet established the running game that had become its brand.
“Our players were affected by the big game atmosphere and the pregame hype,” explained Johnson. “Give Louisville credit; they’ve won the state championship and they were unaffected. It took some of our guys some time to adjust to big-time playoff football.”
During halftime, Johnson and his coaching staff didn’t change the plays or defensive schemes. Instead, they talked to the players about executing what they do best.
“In the first half, we really stopped ourselves,” added Johnson. “We just had to work on the mindset of our players at halftime and have them ready for the third quarter.”
The Wildcats from Clarksdale won the third quarter, 12-0, setting the stage for the game’s exciting ending.
With the second half’s opening possession, Clarksdale drove through the heart of the Louisville defense with its vaunted running game. Because of Clarksdale’s running success, the Louisville defense had to commit more defenders to stop the run. Clarksdale’s coaches called well-timed passes that surprised the Louisville defense. Several of those were thrown to running back Leroy Boulton, who ran a delayed-release route from the backfield. Boulton’s critically-timed receptions and tough inside runs played a major role in the Clarksdale comeback.
In one of the game’s crucial moments, facing third-and-long on the first drive of the second half, Jones completed a pass to senior tight end Kaleb Maddox. Although a Louisville defender hit him short of the first-down marker, Maddox ran through the tackle and dove for the first down. That set up the rushing touchdown by Jones that finally put Clarksdale on the scoreboard.
Another of the game’s outstanding moments came from an acrobatic touchdown catch by Clarksdale wide receiver DeMarlos Chapman. Earlier in the game, Chapman had fiercely battled a defensive back for a ball that was intercepted. On this play, he left no doubt about who owned the ball and who had just lit up the scoreboard.
Late in the fourth quarter, Louisville drove to midfield hoping to either score or run out the clock to prevent another Clarksdale possession. Louisville ran right, which they had done often, but Clarksdale senior linebacker Dominick Hill smacked the ball carrier with a vicious hit. The result was a fourth down and a Louisville punt that postured Clarksdale for its final drive.
Hill’s hit was just one of many hard-hitting plays by the Clarksdale defense. Clarksdale dominated Louisville on crucial third-downs, allowing only four of 11 third-down conversions. Despite scoring over 400 points this season, Louisville was held to 16 points and a mere 239 yards. The defensive front, held Louisville to double-digit rushing yards (98) for the only time this season.
On offense, Clarksdale’s ground attack almost doubled the Louisville running game, 186 to 98. Jones added 88 yards passing to compliment his rushing yards.
Moving forward after disappointment stands as one of the great life lessons taught in athletics. For Johnson, it’s time to do exactly that. “These things happen,” he explained. We came up short, and we have to move on. Football teaches that, and we as coaches teach that. I believed before the game that the winner of our game would win the north and play for the state championship, and I still believe that. Louisville has an outstanding team, and they could win the state championship. For us, coming that close to greatness can become a good thing if we handle it the right way moving forward.”