Photo by Jared Thomas

Sponsored by:
Performance Therapy Brandon
Burgers Blues Barbecue – Brandon
PriorityOne Bank
Gilreath Construction Company, LLC
Oak Grove High School, Hattiesburg MS
Play It Again Sports – Hattiesburg, MS
Brandon Bulldog Athletics

By Robert Wilson
Photos by Jared Thomas

       Thanks to the arm and legs of senior quarterback and Texas A&M commitment AJ Maddox, Oak Grove is back in the state championship game for the first time since 2020.

       Maddox passed for 363 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 100 yards and three TDs to lead Oak Grove to a 49-45 victory over Brandon in an offensive show between the top teams in Mississippi, according to MaxPreps, in the MHSAA Class 7A semifinals before an 10,500 at Brandon’s Bulldog Stadium/Louis Strickland Field in Brandon. 

       Oak Grove improved to 11-1 and meets Starkville, 10-3 and a 35-15 winner over Madison Central, Saturday at 7 p.m. for the 7A state title at Ole Miss’ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford. Oak Grove’s last appearance in the state title game was in 2020 when the Warriors won the championship. This will make Oak Grove’s fourth state title appearance in the last six seasons.

       Brandon finished 10-3 and broke a 10-game winning streak. The Bulldogs were trying to reach the state title game of the third consecutive year, finishing state runner-up in 2021 and 2022 to Madison Central and Starkville respectively. Brandon had defeated Oak Grove 38-20 in the regular season at Oak Grove.

       Both teams came in nationally ranked. Brandon was No. 220 and Oak Grove No. 222 in the Top 300 national poll by High School Football America.

       The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Maddox showed why he has 17 Division I offers, including No. 8 and SEC West champion Alabama, with one of the best games of his brilliant career Friday. He completed 22 of 34 passes and threw TD passes of 12 yards to senior wide receiver Tajii Burkett in the first quarter and 48 yards to senior wide receiver and LSU commitment PJ Woodland in the second quarter and ran for TDs of 40 yards in the first quarter, 10 yards and 1 yard in the fourth quarter.

       Brandon took its first lead of the game when junior Russell Robins blocked an Oak Grove punt and Brandon recovered on the Oak Grove 7. Senior running back and Louisiana-Monroe commitment Nate Blount, who had 136 yards on 18 carries and three TDs, scored on a 3-yard run to put Brandon ahead 45-42 with 8 minutes, 7 seconds to play. 

       Maddox led Oak Grove on a 80-yard, 10-play scoring drive and he scored on a 1-yard run to retake the lead at 49-45 with 3:54 to play. 

       Brandon drove to the Oak Grove 43, but Oak Grove stopped Blount short on fourth and 2 with 1:23 to play. Oak Grove ran out the clock.

“I was proud of the way AJ played and the entire team,” said Oak Grove coach Drew Causey, who has an 89-29 record in nine seasons, including one state title in 2020 and two state runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019. “Our guys fought all night and never gave up.”

       “Friday night was an unreal game and atmosphere, and I was so proud of our kids for the fight and resilience they showed,” said Brandon coach Sam Williams, who has a 34-8 record in three seasons at Brandon. “We went down 14-0 early in the game against an extremely talented team. We were able to battle back the whole game and eventually regain the lead in the fourth quarter. I give credit to Oak Grove for always answering and finding a way to finish the game in the fourth quarter. Even in defeat, I was super proud of our kids, how they played, and how they conducted themselves all night. There are a lot of teams who would have mailed it in when faced with those circumstances, but our kids chose to fight.”

       The 6-foot, 155-pound Woodland – who has 17 Division I offers, including No. 4 Florida State, No. 7 Texas, No. 8 Alabama and No. 11 Ole Miss – caught 10 passes for 181 yards and one TD. Junior running back Kylin Champagne had 137 yards on 22 carries and two TDs. Senior wide receiver Nehemiah Taylor had four catches for 80 receiving yards. Oak Grove had 603 total yards.

       Maddox went over the 3,000-yard mark in passing Friday and now has 3,096 yards and 33 TDs and has 440 rushing yards and nine TDs this season. Woodland has 1,272 receiving yards and 10 TDs this season.

Oak Grove is the only team with three players rated in the 247 Sports’ Top 17 in Mississippi in the Class of 2024 (defensive lineman and Southern Miss commit Caleb Moore is No. 11, Woodland, who also plays defensive back, is No. 15 and Maddox is No. 17). And there is only other school – 6A semifinalist South Panola – with two in the top 17.

       Brandon freshman running back Tyson Robinson – who received an offer from No. 5 Oregon Saturday – had career-high 237 yards on 12 carries and one TD, a 77-yard run for Brandon’s first score. Senior quarterback and Mississippi Gulf Coast commitment Landon Varnes completed 11 of 18 passes for 141 yards and one TD, a 28-yard TD to junior Jay McQueen in the second quarter.

       Blount finished the season with 1,495 and 24 TDs. Varnes passed for 2,552 and 26 TDs.