Senior staff writer
Southport junior defensive back Hunter Hightower was relieved emotionally Friday night when the Cardinals’ defense stopped Perry Meridian’s potential game-winning drive on the 33-yard line with 92 seconds left in a hard-fought battle of Perry Township.
“It was crazy,” said Hightower. “I was so tired and so was most of the defense that we just wanted to get off the field and enjoy it. I was so relieved.”
The game was different than last year’s lopsided 62-21 win by Southport.
Perry Meridian trailed by six points, stopped Southport and launched a march with 5:10 to go from the Cardinals’ 20. A 29-yard run by sophomore quarterback Jalen Lee sparked the drive.
Two penalties, a short gain and two incomplete passes later, Southport prevailed with a fourth-down stop for a 34-28 Conference Indiana and backyard win.
“They started moving us on that drive,” Southport coach Bill Peebles said. “We didn’t have many answers so we just had to gut it out. Our offense put up just enough numbers for us.
“This is a great rivalry, and they fought back. Getting a win against an archrival is a huge win.”
Southport enjoyed a 28-7 lead with 2:27 left in the second quarter.
The TDs were spread around. Luke Johnson, Southport’s all-time leading passer, connected on scoring strikes of 2, 36 and 11 yards to Blake Evans, Evan Higgs and Paul Scruggs, respectively. Running back Micah Walker capped the Cards’ first-half scoring with a 5-yard TD.
The Falcons, as they did all night, kept coming back. Lee made his first start due to senior Matt McCloskey recovering from a pulled leg muscle. Lee cut Southport’s lead to 28-14 with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brevin Lee with 12.5 seconds to go in the first half.
“We knew going in that it would be a game of two totally different styles,” Falcons coach Scott Marsh said. “We knew our defense had to cover, and we had to dominate the line of scrimmage when we had the ball – and that’s how it played out. Their offensive philosophy was to score more times; our kids were courageous but we came up a little bit short.”
The Cardinals were successful on their first eight third-down situations, which resulted in a 21-7 lead. Johnston connected on six passes, including a 24-yarder to Evans on third and 24. Perry Meridian converted 3-of-6 third-down plays.
The Falcons mustered 176 yards of offense, mostly on the ground, in the first half, while Southport showed its air attack with Johnston and ground play from Andrew Mappes, who only ran once in the second half after suffering a hip pointer.
“We read our keys and fought hard,” Hightower said. “We wanted to contain to the outside and make sure they didn’t get anything behind us. This (win) is awesome.”
Johnston completed 26-of-34 passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns. Mappes ran for 65 yards on nine carries, and Walker had one TD and 64 yards on 14 carries.
“Defensively, when we got them in third and long it was to our advantage,” Peebles said. “Offensively, we kept drives alive on third down.”
The Falcons’ ground game was comparable to Southport’s air attack.
Perry’s Jordan Marion scored twice and gained 119 yards on 14 carries; Lee amassed 118 yards on 13 carries. Christian Buchanan added 65 yards and Jaylin Marion gained his 55 yards in the second half.