All season long, the Ridgeland defense has geared up to stop the run, while daring other teams to beat them through the air.
Friday night, someone finally did.
The Jefferson Dragons, Class AAAA state semifinalists a season ago, scored 28 unanswered points and got a late defensive stop to knock off second-ranked Ridgeland, 28-21, in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs at Bowers and Painter Field.
Jefferson (10-2) will advance to the quarterfinals where they will travel to Mary Persons next week, while the second-best season in Ridgeland history came to a close with an 11-1 record.
Ridgeland head coach Wesley Tankersley said the loss was a bitter pill to swallow.
"It's hard to say anything to the kids," he said. "You know they are hurting and we (as coaches) are hurting too. They battled hard. We were down 28-14 and a lot of negative things were happening there in the third quarter. But they still came back and scored and made it a ball game at the end. We had a chance to do something there at the end, but just didn't do it."
Ridgeland did its best to contain Dragons running back Colby Wood. The senior, who came into Friday with over 6,200 rushing yards and almost 90 touchdowns for his career, managed just 72 yards on 20 tough carries and was held out of the end zone. However, it was the combination of quarterback Bryce Moore and receiver Zac Corbin that did the damage.
Moore was just 11-of-19 for 152 yards on the night, but three of his completions went for touchdowns and several other throws came in crucial situations to keep the chains moving. Meanwhile, Corbin was turning in perhaps the game of his life. He caught nine passes for 118 yards and all three scores and hauled in some remarkable grabs when it appeared that the Panthers seemingly had perfect coverage.
"They're a good football team and everyone knows that," Tankersley said. "We've taken the chance on defense all year. We send a lot of pressure and play a lot of man-to-man. Tonight it bit us a little bit. I don't think there was a time when (the Jefferson receivers) were wide open. Our guys were right there on them. They just made some great catches on great throws in tight windows.
"They had a few runs here and there, but for the most part, I think our defense did very well against (Wood), but their receivers made plays. That's how we've set up our defense all year. We're going to stop your number one threat and if you've got some other guys that can beat us, then that may happen."
The game had the makings of another Ridgeland blowout early on as the Panthers led 14-0 after their first two possessions. Tanner Hill capped a 73-yard opening drive with a 15-yard TD pass to Stephon Walker and, following a strip sack by Derayl Helton near midfield, Hill hit Walker on a 24-yard pass to help set up an 8-yard TD run by Jalyn Shelton with 3:44 left in the first quarter.
But the momentum would immediate swing to the side of the visitors just moments later.
Wood knifed through the Panthers' kick coverage for 76 yards before Justin Cole broke free for a 16-yard TD run just one play later. The Dragons would miss the extra point, but their defense would stop the Panthers on fourth down at the Jefferson 49 to get the ball back for their offense.
Moore went 4-of-6 on the ensuing drive, while Corbin got things going with a spectacular one-handed catch. Addison Clay added a big 14-yard reception on third-and-long and Corbin came up big on fourth-and-goal from the Ridgeland 9, catching a pass and getting a foot down for his first score of the night. Tight end Garmon Rudolph, all 6-foot-6 of him, snared the conversion pass to knot the game with 9:05 left in the half.
Ridgeland thwarted the Dragons' next drive as Cole had the ball punched out just before he crossed the goal line. Markeith Montgomery pounced on the ball for the touchback, but Kade McNally would get the ball right back for Jefferson, picking off a Hill pass inside the Ridgeland 30. Two plays later, Corbin hauled in a 26-yard TD pass, while Rudolph's second conversion catch gave the Dragons a 22-14 halftime lead.
Moore and Corbin would strike again to begin the third quarter. Moore completed passes on third-and-nine and third-and-11 to keep the drive alive before Corbin pulled in a 21-yard scoring strike with 6:38 left in the period. A failed conversion pass kept the score at 28-14.
Late in the third, the Panthers forced a punt and responded with an 11-play, 66-yard march. Montgomery had runs of 33 and 13 yards on the drive before Shelton got in from the 1-yard line on fourth down. Conner Middleton's third PAT of the night cut the gap to seven with 8:53 remaining.
The defense would step up to force a Jefferson punt and they would get another three-and-out with 3:32 left to set up the offense at the Dragons' 42-yard line. But back-to-back penalties would put Ridgeland in a hole and on second-and-12 from midfield, Terrell Wall would end the final Panther threat with a pick.
Jefferson would pick up one final game-sealing first down with just under two minutes to play before successfully running out the clock.
The Panthers had 255 yards of offense, 199 coming on the ground, while Dragons had just 230 yards, carrying 31 times for just 78 yards. Montgomery was the workhorse for the Panthers with 125 yards on 20 carries, while Shelton - back on the field after missing last week with a high-ankle sprain - had just 28 yards on 11 rushing attempts. Hill was 4-of-10 for 56 yards in the air with Walker making three catches for 46 yards.
"Ridgeland's only been past the second round one time," Tankersley explained. "It's not an easy thing to do. I've got to figure out as a coach what I need to do better and what I need to do differently with our kids to get us over that threshold."
The Panthers' third-year coach said he would greatly miss this group of seniors, who helped the team to back-to-back Region 6-AAAA championships, three straight state playoff appearances and a 20-3 record over the last two years.
"Every one of them means something to me," he added. "They came out and really showed a lot of character tonight in adverse situations. You just tell them that you hope they take these life lessons learned on the football field and apply then to the game of life."