Madison Central’s Jake Norris powers in for the winning touchdown for the Madison Central Jaguars. (Photo by Keith Warren)

HATTIESBURG — Where to start on Madison Central’s marvelously competitive, exceedingly hard-fought 24-17 Class 6A championship victory over Brandon Friday night at The Rock at Southern Miss?

Rick Cleveland

I could tell you about the fierce hitting on both sides of the ball. Or about how well-coached both teams were, or how cleanly played the game was despite all the brutally hard knocks. I could tell you about heroic efforts on the part of opposing quarterbacks Jake Norris of Madison Central and 15-year-old sophomore Landon Varnes of Brandon. I could tell you about running backs De’Andre Pullen, who gained 132 yards rushing for Madison Central and Jarvis Durr, who ran for 116 and a touchdown for Brandon.

Or maybe I should just let Demario Davis, the New Orleans Saints linebacking great and former Brandon Bulldog who walked the sidelines throughout, sum it up.

“Man, there were a lot of tremendous athletes out there tonight on both sides,” Davis said, as fans of both teams waited to pose with him for photos. “It was a hard-fought, well-played game by two extremely well-coached teams. Both teams should be proud. I mean, that was one heck of a football game.”

And his team lost…

Those of us who follow Mississippi high school football expected nothing less. After all, you had two of the state’s largest high schools, natural rivals located in suburbs of Jackson. You had the 12-1 Madison Central Jaguars, winners of nine straight, going against the 11-2 Brandon Bulldogs, winners of 11 straight. You had two of the state’s top coaches, the Jaguars’ Toby Collums, matching wits with Brandon’s 30-year-old whiz kid Sam Williams.

It had all the makings. It did not disappoint.

Every time you thought one team clearly had the upper hand and momentum, the other team came off the deck and fired back.

Brandon landed the first big blow on the game’s first possession. Varnes, the 5-foot, 10-inch 15-year-old who has a learner’s permit but no driver’s license, nevertheless drove the Bulldogs 82 yards on eight plays, mixing Varnes’ hard running with some slick passing of his own. With blitzing Jaguars in his face on both plays, Varnes hit Lester Miller with a 33-yard pass and Devin Thigpen with a 40-yarder to the Jaguar one. After a holding penalty and a sack moved it back to the 23, Brandon faced third and goal from nearly a quarter of the football field. So, Varnes, again in the face of a relentless pass rush, hit Miller with a 23-yard touchdown. You should know Varnes was playing despite a strained knee ligament.

Said Brandon offensive coordinator Wyatt Rogers, daddy of Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers: “I’ll tell you this about Landon Varnes, he’s tougher than a lighter knot. He ain’t nothing but a winner.”

You could say the same about Madison Central quarterback Jake Norris, a strapping 6-2, 205-pound junior, who was the backup tight end before starting QB Vic Sutton suffered a bad knee injury two weeks before against Oxford.

Madison Central coach Toby Collums didn’t quite escape a Gatorade bath. (Photo by Keith Warren)

Norris passed and ran the Jags into position for a 35-yard Max Zuluga field goal that cut the deficit to 7-3 early in the second quarter. Then, Norris guided the Jags on a nine-play, 59-yard play touchdown drive for a 10-7 lead.

That’s the way the half ended, but Brandon quickly tied it 10-10 early in the third on Jalen Ballard’s 33-yard field goal. Two plays later, Norris hit the play of the game, a 79-yard strike to wide receiver Isiah Spencer, who was speeding down the middle of the field, two steps ahead of a defender. It was a play-action pass, which caught the Brandon safeties cheating up to stop the run. Norris threw a strike.

“We practiced it all week,” Spencer said. “We knew it was going to work, and it did.”

That made it 17-10. Again, the Bulldogs answered early in the fourth quarter with Durr capping a 78-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 17.

You just had the feeling that in such a cleanly played game that eventually a turnover might become the difference. And it did. With Brandon driving at its own 47, Braxton Barney, who was all over the field making plays this night, stripped the ball away from Durr, and Victor Hollins recovered at the Madison Central 48.

The Jaguars covered the 52 yards in seven plays, all runs, with Norris pulling away from a Bulldog into the end zone for the final two yards and the winning points with 3 minutes, 53 seconds remaining. 

“He’s a dude now, he’s special,” Collums said of Norris, who ran for 46 yards and threw for 115. “I’m so proud for him and for our whole team and our community. It’s been a long time (22 years) since Madison Central won one of these. Doing it against a great team like Brandon makes it all the more special.”

The game ended the way these state championship games so often do, with tears of joy on one side and tears of abject sadness on the other. And here’s the deal: Both Madison Central and Brandon are stacked with high-level talent in freshmen, sophomore and junior classes. We could see this happen again next December and then beyond.

Lucky us.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.