Laurel head coach Todd Breland didn't see the special teams play or much of what happened immediately after. What he did see after turning around to the loud cheers, and erupting sidelines was all that mattered - senior Khylin Dixon crossing the goal line with 7:21 left to play.
“Honestly, I wasn’t watching the play,” said Breland. “I was talking to someone on the sidelines. I just turned around and saw him going into the end zone.”
Dixon's fumble recovery on special teams, followed by his scoop and score, put Laurel back on top, 21-18, in the fourth quarter. Laurel went on to defeat Pascagoula by the same score Friday night "Between the Bricks," advancing the Tornadoes to the second round of the MHSAA Class 5A playoffs.
“Before the play, we knew we had to make something happen,” said Dixon. “We sent three people to block the punt. When I saw Pascagoula only had just two guys to block us [from doing so], I knew one of us would get through.”
The scoring play gave Laurel the momentum it needed to finish out the win. Laurel’s Ryan Fuller sealed the game on Pascagoula’s last attempt to score, forcing a fumble on his sack of Panther’s quarterback K. Parnell as time wasted away in the final minute.
“Wasn’t that a fun football game though,” asked Breland. “A game full of momentum changes in weird ways. I’m proud of our kids. I told them at halftime that somebody would make a game-changing play. I think we had three or four of those in the second half.
"Hats off the Pascagoula. Everybody on the field tonight played hard tonight. When things didn't go right, they came back and made plays later. And that was in a lot of different areas, offensively, defensively, and special teams."
When the offensive wasn’t clicking, special teams took control. In addition to its scoop-and-score in the fourth quarter, Laurel’s Elijah Milsap recovered a Pascagoula muffed punt late in the first quarter. Several plays later, quarterback/running back Xavier Evans crossed the goal line on a five-yard run to give Laurel its first lead of the night, 7-2.
Six possessions later, counting both Laurel and Pascagoula offensive drives, Evans returned a Pascagoula punt inside the Panthers’ one-yard line. Kiron Benjamin scored on the next play to push Laurel in front, 14-5.
“Things weren’t going the way we wanted to on offense,” said Breland. “But kids made plays tonight [on special teams].”
Pascagoula made plays on special teams too. The Panthers answered Laurel’s score set up by its special teams with one of their own, taking the ensuing kickoff down the right sideline and to the house. The score stood at 14-11 in favor of Laurel at the half.
After a scoreless third quarter, Pascagoula passed Laurel on the scoreboard, 18-14, with 10:06 left in the game on a drive that ate up over 10 minutes of clock. A five-yard touchdown rush capped the drive.
“I thought we’d never get the ball back during that drive,” said Breland.
But they did, which ended in a Laurel turnover, that set up the Pascagoula drive, which set up the Laurel fumble recovery on special teams and game-winning scoop-and-score by Dixon.
Laurel (10-2) travels Picayune (12-0) next Friday night for a mammoth second-round matchup.
“We live to play another day,” said Breland. “We have a history with Picayune, and we’ll get in here Sunday and go to work [watching game film]. We’ll make a plan, and throw everything we have at them.”