By JAMES CARSKADON
For Starkville Daily News
Starkville High School head coach Jamie Mitchell had a lot to be happy about Friday night.
His Yellowjackets played what may have been their best game of the season in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs and cruised to a 42-28 victory over Hernando.
Leading the way was junior quarterback Gabe Myles, who put up astronomical numbers in the first half.
The junior threw for 216 yards and five touchdowns on 12 of 14 passing in the first two quarters of play as the Yellowjacket offense moved the ball at will.
“I was just focused on getting the pass completed,” Myles said. “The playmakers will make the play for you. That’s all I was worried about doing.”
After the school went four years without hosting a playoff football game, Starkville High will host two back-to-back thanks to a West Point victory over Neshoba Central Friday night. The Green Wave were one of two teams to defeat the Yellowjackets this season, winning 33-12 in West Point on Sept. 9.
Hernando, however, had no such luck on Friday night.
Starkville set the tone on the opening kickoff when Preston Baker returned it 73 yards, which was followed by Myles’ first touchdown of the night, a 17-yarder to Jimmy Saulsberry. Later in the first quarter, Myles found an open Devin Mitchell coming out of the backfield for a 50-yard touchdown to give the Jackets a 14-0 lead.
Hernando’s lone scoring opportunity of the first half came after the Tigers recovered a Starkville fumble on an option pitch and were able to turn that possession into a touchdown. From there, the Gabe Myles show went to the next level.
Myles threw touchdown passes to Stanley Higgins, Saulsberry and Baker to give Starkville a 35-7 lead at halftime. In what may have been the top highlight of the night, Baker’s touchdown came on a 20-yard pass where the junior had to do an acrobatic leap for the pylon to score.
The only drive Starkville did not score on in the first half was the drive when the Jackets fumbled the ball away.
Mitchell said he planned to expose matchups he saw while watching Hernando on film.
“I tell you what, (Myles) was unconscious in the first half,” he said. “I felt like we had some matchups we really liked and we have a lot of guys that can really run on offense. I felt like we took advantage of some matchup problems that they had.”
The Yellowjacket defense also did its job in the first half, swarming Hernando ball carriers and only allowing one touchdown.
Mitchell allowed his backups to get playoff minutes under their belts in the second half and gave backup quarterback Michael Newman control of the offense. However, the backup units struggled and Hernando was able to creep back within shouting distance when it scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. At one point Mitchell switched out the entire defensive lineup after a long run for a first down was given up by the second team.
The game was never seriously in question, however, and the Jackets finished out strong.
“We had a great week of preparation, and our guys know what’s at stake,” Mitchell said. “I told them before we came out here, we just seem like a team that doesn’t get too high or too low.”
The Jackets racked up 436 total yards of offense, 260 of which came through the air, while they held Hernando to 276 total yards.
Starkville will now turn its attention to the Green Wave in what will be a significant hurdle to overcome if the Yellowjackets are going to make a run at the 5A state championship.
“We’ll be ready to go and we have to have a good week of practice,” Mitchell said. “We knew to get to Jackson we were going to have to beat them somewhere, so no better place than here.”
For a confident Myles, the matchup is indicative of where this team stands among its peers.
“(We) play the best, because we are the best,” Myles said. “That’s how I feel. We’re the best.”