Photo by Brandon Jackson

By Robert Wilson

       The two-year growing pains of Coach Devin Cooper at Northwest Rankin are over and it’s time for the full-grown Cougars to eat. And they took another bite out of the 2023 season Thursday night with a win against one of their Rankin County rivals.

       Northwest Rankin, on the strength of four takeaways (three fumbles and one interception), won its fifth game of the season with a 21-13 victory over previously undefeated Pearl in the MHSAA Class 7A, Region 3 opener for both teams before an estimated 7,000 fans at Ray Rogers Stadium in Pearl.

       Northwest Rankin improved to 5-1, a dramatic turnaround from the last two seasons when the Cougars won only six games, four in 2021 and two in 2022. Pearl dropped to 5-1.

       Northwest Rankin benefited from those four Pearl turnovers to stop Pearl’s offense from getting into the end zone but once. Junior linebacker Brooks Wallis and sophomore linebacker Dylan Varnell recovered fumbles in the first half to help out the Cougars. Sophomore defensive back Mickell Smith had an interception deep inside the Northwest Rankin 10 in the third quarter to stop another Pearl scoring threat. And the biggest was in the final minute when Pearl was driving for a possible tying score and junior linebacker Daniel Watkins caused a fumble and senior defensive lineman Braylon Brown recovered it to clinch the win.

       “We were able to come up with the key stops,” Cooper, who came to Northwest Rankin from Scott Central. “Pearl controlled the trenches for most of the game. Our boys kept fighting and never quit. The offense had a hard night but made some big plays at the right time. (Senior wide receiver) Kaleb Boggans made a few really big catches from (senior quarterback) Wes White to extend a key drive late in the game. Pearl played a great game and gave us problems. They are very well coaches and play hard. I’m super proud of my guys to find a way to win a big game on the road in this district.

       “I have seen this group mature over the past three seasons and they are learning how to play as a team. We still have several sophomores and one freshman playing. A ton of learning and growth still has to happen to reach our potential.”

       Pearl took a 7-0 lead on sophomore quarterback Jack Durr’s 12-yard touchdown run with 6 minutes, 45 seconds to play in the first quarter. Northwest Rankin tied it at 7-7 when White completed a 48-yard TD pass to sophomore wide receiver Noah Williams on the first play of the second quarter. Northwest Rankin took a 14-7 lead with a minute to go before halftime on senior running back Dylan Lewis’ 1-yard TD run.

       Pearl answered with two Colston Bennett field goals of 32 and 35 yards to close the gap to 14-13 early in the fourth quarter. But Lewis added his second TD with a 5-yard run for a 21-13 Northwest Rankin lead with 2:24 to play.

       Pearl drove down the field and had first and 10 at the Northwest Rankin 21 with 29 seconds to go when the Cougars made yet another big defensive play.

       White completed 13 of 21 passes for 182 yards and Durr completed 10 of 25 passes for 152 yards. Pearl junior running back Antwon Shoto had 115 yards on 15 carries.

       Pearl was off to its best start since the undefeated and state championship season of 2017 and had won its five games for only the second time since 1983. But Thursday night saw the Pirates come to an end.

       “I didn’t think we played good enough to win the game at the end of the day,” said Pearl coach Justin Hunter, who is in his fourth season at head coach after being offensive coordinator for Pearl coach John Perry for six seasons. “We made too many mistakes and missed opportunities. I thought Northwest Rankin did a great job on both sides of the ball with great plans. You can’t turn the ball over and win against a good team. We’ve got to bounce back and get ready for another huge region game (against Petal).”