Heroes can come in all shapes and sizes. A hero might be a large, green Hulk tearing through a city. Then again, it might also be a small but faithful David taking down a heaping Goliath, but heroes, whether likely or unlikely, can be found in any number of scenarios. That includes the first game of a football season for a team with a serious desire and need to prove themselves.
The Mississippi College Choctaw football team welcomed the Clark Atlanta University Panthers to Clinton, Miss. on Thursday night to kick off their 2018 season. It marked the second year in a row that the two teams opened their respective seasons squaring off against each other, with the Panthers claiming last year’s game on their home field with a 32-29 overtime win. The loss kickstarted what would eventually turn into a disappointing 1-9 finish for the Choctaws in 2017 that left the team once again searching and hungry for more.
But with a fresh season and opportunity came new coaches, new schemes, new talent, and an overall new outlook. All of that was put on display on Thursday night in front of an incredibly rowdy, energetic, and paint-covered crowd at Robinson-Hale Stadium that shared the same hopes and aspirations as the team itself.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. In fact, there was a fair amount of palm-sweating and nail-biting that went into Thursday’s contest, specifically for the Choctaws. And with 43 seconds remaining in the game and Clark Atlanta down by one point but sitting 28 yards from the MC end zone, the Choctaws found themselves a hero as junior cornerback Elijah Rogers sealed the deal with a clutch interception at the five-yard line. The mass of spectators rapidly lost their minds, the Choctaw offense slipped into the victory formation, and MC shut the door on the misfortunes of 2017 with a winning start to the 2018 year.
“I was actually looking for the ball to come to me,” Rogers said of his late-game heroics. “Fourth and one, they should’ve come out for the field goal. I was looking for it. They had run the post all day. I was looking for it, and coach called the right play.”
Rogers ended up playing a big role in the Choctaw victory, tallying two interceptions and eight solo tackles on the defensive side of the ball. His interception was the icing on the cake in a hard-fought game by a Choctaw team that needed a win not only to appease the fans in attendance, but also to feed their own drive.
It was a game of firsts for many different areas on the Mississippi College side of things, which only added to both the intensity and uncertainty of a first game of the year against a team that owned bragging rights.
The Choctaws debuted the triple-option setup on offense, junior quarterback Detric Hawthorn (a transfer from Jones Community College) made his first start in an MC uniform, and the team set a new wave of talent in motion with the first contest.
Some parts of their new picture looked good. Others looked as though they could still use some work or sanding around the edges.
Hawthorn looked rather comfortable in his first start, rushing for 145 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries and completing six passes on 13 attempts for 111 yards. He did make some costly mistakes, though, throwing an interception and playing a part in a fumble that led to 10 points going in the other direction. But overall, his composure was solid, he used his speed to his advantage (including on a third-and-short play that turned into a 61-yard sprint), and gave the Choctaws a reputable asset under center.
The triple-option is a challenging and precise style of offense to learn and can come with growing pains for any team trying to harness it. The Choctaws dealt with those pains on Thursday night, with a few fumbles and interceptions that maybe chopped up to nothing more than miscommunication, but they found a way to trudge through and turn the pains into something positive.
Senior running back Tiberias Lampkin collected 90 yards on 16 carries. Senior wide receiver Chakel Gates caught two passes for 47 yards. Junior defensive back Turner Rotenberry returned an 87-yard interception to the end zone for a touchdown early on that helped MC maintain the flow of the game.
A handful of different players, both new and returning, found a way to pitch in and keep the Choctaws out in front in the race. And even when the Panthers scored to take the lead with 10:15 to go in the game, no hope had been lost (as it might have been in years past). The fans were still alert and locked in, the team was still focused and hungry, and the drive to the finish line was a big one.
It was a game that no story can tell all too well. Instead, it was one that had to be lived out in order to fully appreciate both the happenings and results.
MC may have been outgained in yardage by a mark of 416-349. They also might have turned the ball over a few times too many and almost lost the game in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, but they had a hero waiting to seal the deal, and he rose to the occasion when he was needed.
This first showing was a chance for MC to introduce plenty of new aspects to their play and see them in an actual game setting. The fact that they also found a way to win the game amidst all of the challenges associated with an uphill climb just goes to show that maybe this MC football team really IS ready to prove something this season.
“We practiced the plays, we executed when it was time to, and that’s what you come out with: a victory,” Rogers said amidst a chorus of chants shortly after the game ended.
Thursday night’s game included exciting new beginnings, a raucous home crowd, a final stand for the ages, a Choctaw football team building hype through a first glimpse at their potential, and a victory to start the season on an ultimately positive note. It’s everything you could ever want in a football game.
The next ten games feature tougher competition and a much higher bar to reach, including a Saturday evening showdown with Southwest Baptist, who will make the trek from Missouri to Robinson-Hale Stadium this weekend.
But if this win proved anything, it’s that the Choctaws are once again out to prove something. The only difference is that this year, they made it immediately known on the scoresheet.
This Saturday offers a new challenge and an opportunity to continue building on success. The first game nerves are out of the way, the Choctaws know what they must improve on, and they will have over a week to tidy things up. By the time Saturday rolls around and Southwest Baptist arrives, it will once again be time for MC to show off their potential and prove themselves.
And who will the hero of game two be? That’s anyone’s guess at this point. But after Thursday night’s show, one thing is clear: you won’t want to miss the second act.