By Robert Wilson
Photos by Bobby McDuffie
Ocean Springs senior quarterback Brayson Hubbard came in with all the publicity – the reigning MHSAA Class 6A Player of the Year, an Alabama commitment and incredible numbers, accounting for 3,707 yards and 40 touchdowns this season for undefeated Ocean Springs.
But it was the other quarterback on the field Friday night – less heralded Brandon junior quarterback Landon Varnes – who came away with the victory and a chance to play for a state championship next week.
Varnes completed 15 of 20 passes for 289 yards and two TDs and most importantly two passes to set up the winning field goal in Brandon’s 34-31 victory over previously undefeated Ocean Springs in the MHSAA Class 6A semifinals Friday night at Hugh Pepper Field in Ocean Springs.
Varnes completed a 25-yard pass to senior wide receiver and Akron (Ohio) commitment Lester Miller to the Ocean Springs 12 with 8 seconds to play to set up senior kicker Will Elliott’s game winning 29-yard field goal on the last play of the game. The play before the pass to Miller, Varnes completed a screen pass to sophomore Quincy Phillips for a 27-yard gain.
Brandon improved to 12-1 and meets Starkville, a 41-32 winner over previously undefeated Tupelo, for the 6A state title Saturday at 7 p.m. at Southern Miss’ M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. It is Brandon’s second straight 6A state title game appearance. The Bulldogs lost to Madison Central 24-17 last season. Ocean Springs finished 12-1 and was denied its first state title game appearance since 2004.
Varnes wasn’t the only offensive star for Brandon. Miller had seven catches for 206 yards and two TDs and junior running back Nate Blount had 34 carries for 201 yards and two TDs. And there’s 6-foot-4, 305-pound senior center and Southern Miss commitment Luke Rogers anchoring the offensive front.
Williams, in his second year at Brandon, will be taking his second consecutive team to the state title game. It is a huge accomplishment considering last year was the only the second time in school history for Brandon to reach the state championship game.
“We came into the game trying to scrap and be physical on offense and defense,” said Williams, who has a 60-18 record, a 76.9 winning percentage, is five seasons as a head coach. “It paid off in the second half. We wanted to hit five to seven explosive plays and we hit every one of them. I’m so proud of our guys. Landon had a great game. He hung in there and took some shots for the team. He’s a competitor. Our players wouldn’t trade him for another quarterback around.”
“We just fight, we never flinched,” said Varnes, who has now passed for 3,006 yards and 24 TDs this season. “Our defense played them really well and held them to 10 points in the second half. Our offensive line did a great job and gave me time to get the ball to our playmakers and they did what playmakers do. We are a fourth quarter football team. I can’t wait to be back in the Rock (Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg) and finish this thing.”
Brandon had a big defensive play to set up the winning drive. Ocean Springs and Hubbard (who finished with 214 total rushing and passing yards and one rushing TD) were driving for the go ahead score when they fumbled and Brandon freshman defensive back Preston Ashley – who was making first career start in place of injured senior Jake McKay – recovered at the Brandon 36 with 26 seconds to play.
Varnes connected with Miller for a 45-yard TD pass for a 7-0 Brandon lead 2 minutes into the game. Ocean Springs then scored 21 straight points – two TD funs by Gray and one by Hubbard – for a 21-7 lead with 9:19 to play before halftime. Varnes completed an 80-yard TD pass to cut the lead to 21-14, then Brandon junior Josh Coe recovered an onside kick and Blount finished the scoring drive with a 6-yard TD for a 21-21 tie with 5:08 to play in the second quarter. Gray scored his third TD on a 3-yard run for a 28-21 Ocean Springs lead at the 2:08 mark before halftime.
Brandon opened the second half with another onside kick and Coe recovered it again to set up a Blount 1-yard TD run for a 28-28 tie with 9 minute to play in the third quarter. Elliott kicked a 29-yard field goal attempt with 1:45 play in the third quarter for a 31-28 Brandon lead – the first since a 7-0 lead early in the game.
Brandon held Ocean Springs for scoring a touchdown and Ocean Springs’ Bart Edminston kicked a 20-yard field goal for a 31-31 tie with 4:45 to play in the game.
Brandon was driving for the go ahead score when Hubbard – who was also playing safety, the position Alabama wants him to play when he gets to college – intercepted a pass deep in Ocean Springs territory with 1:39 to play to start a potential game-winning drive.