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Ole Brook defense emerges late to win in first round of playoffs

Wayne County was scoring points.

A War Eagles offense that hadn’t done much all season played a fantastic game in the first round of the 5A playoffs against Brookhaven (11-1, 7-0), moving the ball on the ground in big bursts and crossing into Panther territory time and time again. Wayne County (6-6, 4-3) had the lead by two points at the end of the third quarter and was in great position to make a move for the victory in a game that saw each team rushing — and scoring — at will.

But when the scoreboard flashed its glowing “12:00” to start the final quarter, Ole Brook’s defense found its steel. The War Eagles punted, fumbled into their own end zone for a safety and died with the clock on their last possession during a scoreless fourth quarter in which Brookhaven was able to squeeze out one last touchdown for the win.

“It’s all about who wanted it the most,” said Panthers senior defensive lineman Jeffery Johnson. “Based off them beating us last year, this was kind of revenge for us. We wanted this win.”

Johnson was involved in all three of the critical plays that shot the War Eagles out of the sky in the fourth quarter.

He dragged down senior Wayne County quarterback Zabryan Jackson on third down during Wayne County’s first possession in the quarter, forcing a punt on the next play. After a Brookhaven punt, Johnson and his teammate, junior linebacker Joseph Edwards, found Jackson again for a sack that set up the War Eagles’ fumbled snap and safety on the next play. On Wayne County’s final possession, Johnson caught Jackson on a scramble and smeared him into the grass inbounds on a 1-yard run to keep the clock running.

Two plays later and it was over on a failed fourth down. Ole Brook took the ball, took a knee and took the victory.

“They tried to get rid of me on some plays — I didn’t get much action on my side,” Johnson said. “But I was able to zone in on the player keys.”

Johnson finished the game with six tackles and one sack. Junior Axavian Jones took down eight War Eagles runners. Sophomore defensive back Byrion Robinson wracked up 10 tackles and forced a fumble, while his senior teammate in the secondary, Jemaurian Jones, had four tackles and a fumble recovery.

Defense has also been Wayne County’s strength all season. The War Eagles boast a stout front line led by Ole Miss commit Quentin Bivens. But Brookhaven’s game plan did not shy away from the War Eagles’ strength.

In fact, they ran right into it all night.

“We were determined not to get tackled by the first man,” said Brookhaven junior quarterback Sevante Quinn.

Senior running back Damarrell Leggett’s explanation was more simple.

“We fear no one,” he said.

Leggett and Quinn together accounted for every inch of Ole Brook’s 423 yards of offense, with Leggett gaining the bulk of the offense — 223 yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries. Quinn carried 21 times for 84 yards. Sophomore J.Q. Edwards, a thousand-yard rusher in 2017, was sidelined with a knee injury sustained two weeks ago against South Jones.

But before Leggett rumbled, and before the Ole Brook defense wrote its name on the fourth quarter, it was anyone’s game.

Wayne County wasted its opening possession, and Brookhaven wasted no time releasing the hounds. Leggett and Quinn moved the team into the red zone before the drive collapsed, and senior kicker Tyler Mixon gave the Panthers a 3-0 lead on a 33-yard field goal.

Wayne County made the Ole Brook defense hurt on the ensuing possession, using four different rushers to fire off runs of 10, 15, 29, 14 and 11 yards on the drive, the last one being a touchdown by Jackson to give the War Eagles a 6-3 lead with 2:24 remaining in the opening quarter.

Leggett and Quinn went back to work on the next Brookhaven drive, converting two short third downs and getting a little help from junior wide out John Hilbert, who finished the night with four catches for 74 yards and the Panthers’ lone passing score. Leggett dove like a summer Olympian to extend across the goal line from a run that began 16 yards away to give his team the lead 10-6 with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter.

Wayne County couldn’t get going when it was their turn, running into Brookhaven’s Robinson on third down and Johnson on a fake punt that went wrong. Ole Brook took over in excellent field position but squandered it to miss a field goal attempt.

The War Eagles remembered how to play football on their next possession, driving 80 yards down the field for a 21-yard Jackson touchdown run.

Brookhaven answered by going 70 yards on the following drive. Sophomore tight end Kadarius Wells caught a Quinn pass for 20 yards to set up the Panthers, and Leggett finished up by obliterating the northwest pylon with a few War Eagles defenders falling over him to give Ole Brook a 17-13 lead with 2:07 to go before halftime.

It wouldn’t be a boring two minutes to the break — Wayne County senior Dearius Royal returned the kickoff to midfield, and then found himself behind the Panther defense to catch a 51-yard score on a trick pass from senior Joshua Page. The War Eagles led 19-17 with 1:45 left in the half.

Brookhaven answered. Jemarius Jones did his own special teams magic, setting the Panthers up on the Wayne County 38-yard line. Leggett ate up 30 yards, Quinn took the next five and Leggett closed up the last three for a score and a Brookhaven lead of 24-19 with less than one minute remaining in the half.

Leggett, Quinn and junior Don Blandon celebrated the score by kneeling on the black-painted No. 18 in the north end zone, a memorial for Jordan Blackwell, a Panther football player killed earlier in the year during Lincoln County’s Memorial Day Massacre. The referees threw yellow, calling it excessive celebration, and head coach Tommy Clopton’s attempts to explain the deeper meaning were ignored. An upset home crowd let their frustration be known.

Mixon’s ensuing kick off was recovered at the 18-yard line. Whether that was intervention from the Great Beyond will never be answered for sure, but Wayne County couldn’t convert before halftime.

Brookhaven punted to open the third quarter, and Wayne County cashed in on a 27-yard scramble from Jackson to regain the lead 25-24 with 7:34 remaining in the third quarter. Brookhaven had to punt again on the next possession, but was bailed out when the War Eagles fumbled on an option pitch.

After a quick first down on the Panthers’ free possession, Quinn hit Hilbert on an inside slant into the clear for a 26-yeard touchdown and a Brookhaven lead, 31-25, with 4:30 remaining in the third quarter.

Wayne County answered with another punt, and Ole Brook was in great position to pad the lead, but War Eagles junior defensive lineman Jay Sibley intercepted Quinn and, despite his generous girth, got all the way to the 1-yard line. Jackson snuck in on the next play for a 33-31 lead with 2:05 remaining in the third quarter.

Leggett and Quinn traded runs all the way down the field on the ensuing Ole Brook possession, with a big reception from Hilbert mixed in, before Leggett scored his fourth and final touchdown to make it 37-33 with 10:22 remaining in the game.

The game’s final 10 minutes were full of drives that went nowhere for either team, with Wayne County’s safety giving Ole Brook another two points for the 39-33 victory.