The Velma Jackson Falcons football team hosted the Taylorsville Tartars in a MHSAA Class 1A playoff game on the school’s campus in Camden, Miss., on Friday, November 24, 2023.

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By Robert Wilson
Photos by Chris Todd

       CAMDEN – Velma Jackson, which had trailed only one time this season before Friday night, was down by 16 points to Taylorsville late in the first quarter in the MHSAA Class 1A state semifinals.

       Things didn’t look at good for the home team.

       That’s when Velma Jackson senior running back Gavin Griffin – who was named the Mississippi Association of Coaches Class 1A Mr. Football last week – took charge.

       Griffin scored 16 points – a 1-yard touchdown run, a 62-yard punt return for a TD, and pair of two-point conversations – in a 2-minute span to tie up the game to ignite Velma Jackson to a 44-22 victory over Taylorsville before an estimated crowd of 1,300 at Velma Jackson here in Northeast Madison County.

       Velma Jackson, which scored 38 straight points, made school history, becoming the first football team to reach the state championship game. Velma Jackson improved to 13-0 and meets Biggersville, 11-1, Thursday at 4 p.m. at Ole Miss’ Vaught Hemingway Stadium in Oxford (televised on MEtv). Biggersville defeated previously undefeated Vardaman 41-21 in the other semifinal.

       Velma Jackson had been to two other semifinals, losing to Scott Central 32-7 in Class 2A last season and losing to Charleston 46-17 in Class 3A in 2016, both under coach Bernard Euell, now in his eighth season. Velma Jackson had never gotten past the second round before Euell arrived.

       The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Griffin – who gained 191 yards on 18 carries and three TDs – gave Velma Jackson a quick 6-0 lead when he burst up the middle for a 66-yard TD run on the second play from scrimmage.

       But Taylorsville bounced back to score 22 straight points. Senior running back Cobey Craft scored on a 29-yard run on fourth and 1 and then Craft intercepted a Velma Jackson senior quarterback Terrelle Smith’s pass – only Smith’s second interception all season – and returned it 39 yards for a TD and added the 2-point conversion for a 14-6 lead with 9:26 to play in the second quarter. Sophomore quarterback Trey Barnes scored on a 2-yard run and Craft added the 2-point conversion for a 22-6 lead after one quarter. 

       That’s when Griffin turned it on. He finished with 32 points, four TDs (three rushing and one on the punt return) and four 2-point conversions. He had 263 all-purpose yards, 191 rushing and 72 on two punt returns. Griffin now has 1,780 rushing yards – 11.3 yards per carry – and 32 TDs and 24 2-point conversions while only playing an average of half of the games due to lopsided victories. This was his 10th 100-yard game this season. He also has three punt returns and two kickoff returns for TDs this season.

“The momentum shifted when we realized we could still win the game if we kept our focus and worked hard,” said Griffin, who has offers from Alcorn State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley, and Southern Illinois. “Despite Taylorsville’s score, we remained determined to make history and never gave up. We knew that we had the potential to come back and that gave us the strength to keep fighting. When we scored the touchdown to win the game, we knew we had made school history. We were all incredibly proud of the team effort we had put in.”

       Smith completed a 54-yard TD pass to junior Tyshun Willis and Griffin added 2-point conversion for a 30-22 lead with 2:14 to play before halftime. The 6-2, 225-pound Willis caught the pass around the Taylorsville 40, stiff-armed a would-be tackler to the turf and raced to the end zone. 

       Smith completed a 50-yard TD pass to Willis for a 36-22 lead with 1:15 to play in the third quarter. Griffin scored on a 4-yard TD run and added a 2-point conversion for a 44-22 lead with 4:48 to play.

       While Griffin led the offense on Velma Jackson’s comeback, two goal line stands in the second half helped keep Taylorsville threatening a comeback of its own. Velma Jackson kept Taylorsville from scoring on two separates on fourth and goal. Willis, who also plays defensive end, led Velma Jackson’s defense with five tackles, 2 for loss, 1 sack and 1 pass breakup.

       “I’m extremely proud of our team and how we responded to adversity throughout the game,” said Euell, an All-State wide receiver at Jackson Jim Hill High and starter at Mississippi State who is in his eighth year at Velma Jackson. “Most teams would have folded being down 22 to 6 to a very good Taylorsville team, but our kids fought their way back into the game. This was a very big win for our kids and the entire Velma Jackson community. We are extremely grateful for our fans. Our playmakers showed up big when we needed them the most. This was definitely a team win. All three phases (offense, defense and special teams) contributed to this win. Our defense in the second half was the difference in the game. We made some critical stops late in the game to keep them out of the end zone after giving up 22 points in the first half. My hat goes off to a hard-fought Taylorsville team that came ready to play. They played a heck of a game. We are grateful for the win and an opportunity to play for a state title.”

       Taylorsville finished one game short of reaching the 15thchampionship game in school history. The Tartars have won eight state championships, reaching the state title game four consecutive years from 2017-2020 and winning three of those in 2017, 2019 and 2020. 

       Taylorville lost four of its first five games but won seven of its last eight before Friday night. It looked like the Tartars were on their way to another win Friday.

       “I’ve got to give Velma a lot of credit,” said second-year Taylorsville coach Seth McDonald, a former West Jones High, East Central and Mississippi College linebacker who has been an assistant at West Jones, Madison Central and Taylorsville. “They are a very good football team and played a great game. In a championship game like this, you’ve got to capitalize on every oporuntity you get. We had several opportunities where we got the ball inside the red zone in the second half and came away with no points. We had some missed tackles in the secondary that resulted in scores. Those missed opportunities definitely hurt us in the second half. Give the team in blue (Velma Jackson) a lot of credit. They made the most of the opportunities to make plays.

       “We had a great season. We have to regroup and have a great offseason and get ready to make another run. Each year, there is a tremendous amount of effort put forward in order to give the team on the field the best opportunity to succeed every Friday night. This year we had a great support group that was key to the success of our season. I’d like to thank my administration, band, and cheer, and lastly our fans who traveled well in the playoffs to support us. It’s a team effort every Friday night.”