Wild finish gives Alabama All-stars victory
It had been a frustrating game for Alabama’s playmakers.
Other than Kerryon Johnson, who ran through the Mississippi defense for three touchdowns, it had been a rather quiet Saturday afternoon for the home team’s skill players in the 28th annual Alabama vs. Mississippi High School All-Star Football Classic at Cramton Bowl.
With just nine seconds remaining, Hoover receiver Justin Johnson knew it was his time to make a play.
“I saw the play at the last minute,” said Johnson, looking down at the wristband that holds all of Alabama’s plays. “I was still kind of looking down. But I’ve been looking for that ball all day. He just kind of threw it up. Right time, right place.”
Johnson got a step on Mississippi defender T.J. Jallow in his race for the left corner of the end zone, reaching up and pulling in Tyler Cameron’s 30-yard touchdown pass as time expired to give Alabama a 36-30 win over Mississippi for the home state’s seventh consecutive victory in the series.
“A prayer was answered right there at the end,” said Alabama all-star head coach Jamey DuBose of Central-Phenix City. “We had nine seconds left and one timeout. Coach (Tim) Carter asked me what did we want to do and I said we have time to throw one up. We threw it up and, lo and behold, we made the play. A great throw by the quarterback, Cameron, and a tremendous play and catch there in the end zone.”
The win capped an improbable comeback by the Alabama all-stars, who had been outplayed by Mississippi in every phase of the game in the first half and trailed 28-17 heading into the locker room.
“We had some issues in the first half,” DuBose said. “Coaches went in and made some corrections and the guys came out and answered the call. We told them what we were representing in the state of Alabama, what this game really means not to us as coaches and football players, but to this whole state.”
There had been few bright spots for Alabama in the first half. Johnson had rushed for two of his three touchdowns, but Brady Davis threw a pair of touchdown passes to Raphael Leonard, Jamarius Smith led the visitors on another touchdown drive and Johnathan Abram returned an interception 44 yards for another touchdown to help Mississippi to an 18-point lead and perhaps the most impressive first half by a Mississippi team in the history of the series.
Alabama, clearly shell shocked, turned the game around in the third quarter. Mississippi recovered an onside kick to start the second half but Davis, who had completed all 12 of his first-half attempts, threw three incomplete passes from the Alabama 12 and a bad snap thwarted a field goal attempt as Michael Jackson tackled placekicker Michael Godley for a seven-yard loss on the play.
After Alabama drove 80 yards in 10 plays for another Kerryon Johnson touchdown, Davis threw an interception on the next play to ignite a 40-yard touchdown drive by Alabama for the lead. Jalen Harris made a leaping seven-yard reception of a Jacob Carroll pass for a touchdown and, suddenly, an overmatched Alabama all-star team had seized the momentum.
“Up front (on defense), we slanted a little more,” DuBose explained. “We knew they were going to throw the football. They weren’t running it. I think they had five (rushing) attempts in the first half. The biggest thing is we had to screw our corners down a little more, be a little more aggressive and a little more physical with our corners. I thought we were too soft in the first half. We just had to get in their face and play a little bit.”
A bad snap led to Blount tailback Demetrice Vaughan getting tackled in the end zone for a safety that tied the game at 30-30 with 3:22 left in the third quarter and a high-scoring affair gradually settled into a hard-fought defensive struggle.
A total of 21 records were tied or broken in the game, including Michael Jackson’s 12-tackle performance for Alabama. The other 20 records were offensive, including combined points (66), most points by the losing team (30), most points by a Mississippi team in the first half (28), first downs (Alabama with 28), combined first downs (51), most plays (74 by Alabama), combined plays (145), combined yardage (726), rush attempts (53 by Alabama), pass attempts (47 by Mississippi), combined pass attempts (68), pass completions (25 by Mississippi), combined pass completions (35), passing yards (280 by Mississippi), combined passing yards (469), passing touchdowns (3) and combined passing touchdowns (4).
In addition, Ole Miss basketball signee Terance Davis of Southaven tied the record for most passes caught in the series (7) and Kerryon Johnson tied records for points scored (18) and touchdowns scored (3).
Johnson, who is committed to play at Auburn, finished with 130 yards on 19 carries just a week after leading Madison Academy to its third consecutive Class 3A state championship.
“I love this kind of stuff,” Johnson said. “It really helps you to develop, it helps you to hone your skills, it really makes you focus a lot. I think that first day (of practice), it caught me off guard, just how fast the game is, how athletic those big guys up front are. But in this game, I just had to slow down, make my reads and make my cuts.”
Johnson, who won MVP honors in the Super 7 Championships as well, broke into a grin when asked about his selection as the Alabama all-star most valuable player.
“It means a lot,” he said. “This is an all-star game, which means there are a lot of good players out here. To get this award is awesome but I didn’t win the game for us. Justin made a huge catch for us, so there were a lot of big players out here making a lot of big plays.”
Starkville receiver Raphael Leonard, who had 59 yards and two touchdowns on five catches, was the Mississippi most valuable player.
In the final hectic minutes, both teams would have a shot at victory, making it the most exciting finish since the first three games in the series ended with overtime victories by Alabama.
Mississippi linebacker Fred Walls of Olive Branch, who tackled Vaughan in the end zone for the safety, batted Jacob Carroll’s pass into the air, then snagged it for an interception on the Alabama 45 with two minutes remaining. The Mississippi all-stars couldn’t move the ball, however, and Godley missed a 46-yard field goal attempt with 63 seconds left.
Alabama then drove the length of the field, but the drive ran into trouble as the all-stars rushed to the line and Cameron took the snap in shotgun formation, then threw the ball to the ground to kill the clock, resulting in a grounding penalty that moved Alabama back nine yards to the 30 with nine seconds remaining.
“We hadn’t been under center all week,” DuBose said. “When we decided to clock it, you’re short on practice and you never think of these things in an all-star game. The kid hadn’t been under center all year so he got in ‘gun’ and did it. But, again, our kids responded.”
If the Alabama all-stars were going to go for the field goal on the 21, the nine-yard loss because of the penalty changed the decision, leading to a memorable play by Justin Johnson and another heartbreaking loss by Mississippi.
“I’m not sure,” Johnson said. “I heard Coach on the sideline saying, ‘You want to run it and take it into overtime or just throw it up?’ They called vertical.”