Photo by Jared Thomas

By Robert Wilson

Sam Williams escaped with a narrow victory over his alma mater, Northwest Rankin, for the second time in his two seasons at Brandon’s coach.

Thanks to a dynamite effort by junior running back Nate Blount (31 carries, 248 yards, 5 touchdowns) and two big defensive plays in the final seconds, Brandon survived Rankin County rival Northwest Rankin 36-28 Friday night in a MHSAA Class 6A, Region game before an estimated 4,500 at Brandon.

Brandon improved to 8-1 overall and 5-1 in region play and bounced back after its 25-20 upset loss at Oak Grove. Northwest Rankin dropped to 4-5 overall and 4-2 in region play and broke a two-game winning streak. Both teams have clinched 6A playoff berths.

For the second straight season, Brandon came in heavily favored, but Northwest Rankin gave the Bulldogs a battle to the end. Brandon, on its way to a 6A state runner-up finish last season, escaped a 50-48 win against Northwest Rankin, which only two games last year, its worst since since 1998.

Friday night, it didn’t look like Northwest Rankin was going to stay with Brandon. It only took two plays – a long return by Brandon sophomore and Madison-Ridgeland Academy transfer Quincy Phillips and Blount followed with a 26-yard gallop – for Brandon to take a 7-0 lead. Blount gained 113 yards and scored three TDs in the first 14 minutes and Brandon rolled to a 20-0 lead.

Northwest Rankin rallied from a 20-7 halftime deficit and tied the game at 28-28 when senior wide receiver Brendan Brown scored on an 8-yard run with 3 minutes, 59 seconds to play.

Blount scored on a 5-yard run and added a two-point conversion for a 36-28 Brandon lead with 1:46 to play.

Northwest Rankin junior quarterback Wes White – who completed 15 of 28 passes for 198 yards and two TDs – drove the Cougars to the Brandon 5 in the final minute. Northwest Rankin had a penalty, an incomplete pass, then Brandon junior defensive lineman Deaundre Washington sacked White at the Brandon 20 and then Brandon senior linebacker Dysart Bell knocked down a pass in the game’s last play to secure the victory.

“It was an awesome game between two really well coached teams,” Williams said. “Both teams refused to quit and kept fighting until the bitter end. Our defense played hard all night, but they just seemed to find a way to win almost every 50/50 ball in the air, credit to them. Our offense never flinched, continued to score touchdowns, and put pressure on them. Our defense came up big when it mattered most and found a way to keep them out of the end zone.

“It’s always fun to compete against (Northwest Rankin Coach) Devin (Cooper) and against my alma mater. Devin and I have had some battles over the years and will continue for years to come. I have a ton of respect for what he has done with that program and the direction he has had them headed in.

“It was a great night for our team. We have ourselves in a great position for the stretch run.”

Brandon’s offensive front, led by senior center and Southern Miss commitment Luke Rogers, helped produce 498 total yards (327 rushing and 171 passing). Junior quarterback Landon Varnes passed for 171 yards and senior wide receiver and Akron (Ohio) commitment Lester Miller caught five passes for 108 yards.

Blount and Miller both passed the 1,000-yard mark for the season Friday night. Blount now has 1,030 yards and 13 TDs and Miller has 45 catches for 1,018 yards and 12 TDs.

“We got off to a slow start, but that is in large part to Brandon and how good they are,” Cooper said. “We kept swinging and got some momentum before halftime with a TD to get the score to 20-7. Our boys knew then they could play with those guys. It became a great battle the remainder of the game. Our offense found a rhythm and made several big plays. I’m very proud of the fight in our boys and the team. I’m thankful for the fan and community support for a road game. The crowd got behind our boys. We fell short, which hurts, but the boys showed heart and fight. We’ll reload and get ready for another big home game battle next week against Oak Grove on Thursday night.”

Cooper and Williams coached against each other when Cooper was at Scott Central, and Williams was at Pelahatchie.

“Sam and I have had some great battles. He always does a great job. We are great friends. We get after each other on one Friday night of the year.”

In addition to Brown’s game-tying run in the last few minutes, he caught 10 passes for 150 yards and one TD.