The Hilltoppers started Friday’s game against Pontotoc in the same fashion as last year’s team – strong and dominant – but youth and inexperience soon caught up with them.
Houston bounced out to a quick 13-point lead on two interceptions and looked to roll over Pontotoc before the Warriors regained their composure and went on to score 30 unanswered points.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces in key positions and this was part of growing up for them,” said Houston coach William Cook. “We’ve got three starters back from last year and this is part of growing pains for us.”
Houston showed flashes of talent with senior tailback J.J. Jones and junior fullback Damien Fields breaking tackles and butting heads. Junior quarterback Garrison Howell showed poise under intense pressure and teamed up with sophomore receiver Denver McQuary on several pass plays.
But Pontotoc capitalized on special team mistakes and just played solid offense and defense as the game marched on.
“Pontotoc played a good game,” said Cook. “They came in here and did what they had to do.”
The win was a first for new Pontotoc head coach Scott Brown. Pontotoc was unranked prior to Friday’s game and Houston was ranked fourth in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal Class 4A/3A poll.
Cook was obviously disappointed in the loss and said he would have to look at the film to determine who had a good game and who didn’t measure up.
“We have got to get better and some of that will come with experience,” said Cook. “We knew we had some weak spots and we will work on those this week.”
Houston ran right, left and up the middle for the first four plays for gains of 9, 5, 5 and 7-yards to quickly establish the ground game. Houston’s first drive would sputter at the Pontotoc 35.
Both teams would trade punts before Houston’s defense caught fire.
Defensive back Jaquis Thornton intercepted a pass and thrilled the crowd as he ran it back 50-yards for the score. Thornton was untouched after he made the pick.
The snap by McQuary was brisk, the hold by Howell was crisp and the PAT by Daniel Casados was good for a 7-0 Houston lead.
On the Warrior’s next possession, McQuary grabbed the first of two interceptions on the night. The sophomore’s second interception was a 12-yard return for a touchdown. The point-after missed but Houston was ahead 13-0.
The Warriors put together two drives in the second quarter with running back John Hall scoring on a 1-yard run and quarterback Will Ard passing to receiver Donte Freeman for a 7-yard TD. Both PATs by Jacob Carter were good and Pontotoc carried a 14-13 advantage into the halftime locker room.
“I was proud of the way we didn’t quit,” said Pontotoc’s Brown. “To get down like that early, it could have happened, they could have quit.”
Pontotoc’s special teams took over in the second half, with the Warriors scoring on the opening kickoff. Jarren McKinzie raced 80 yards untouched and Pontotoc never looked back.
The Warriors would catch Houston’s quarterback in the end zone for a safety and score a final touchdown on a 8-yard run by Jacob Moorman. All of Carter’s kicks on the night were good.
Howell completed 8-of-15 for an unofficial 65 yards with one interception. His main target was McQuary who caught four passes for 30 yards.
Houston’s top rusher was Fields with 67-yards on 15 attempts.
“We had hoped our defense would be stronger and our offense didn’t help out tonight,” said Cook. “I think our guys know their positions, but many of them have never started and they never really got in the game.”
Houston travels to the “Bone Yard” at Calhoun City Friday night. The Wildcats beat Coffeeville, 45-6 last week.