JONESBORO — Friday night’s season opener against Blytheville seemed more like a 5A-East conference game to Nettleton head coach Steven Hampton, and with good reason.
The Raiders played the Chickasaws in the fifth game in each of the past 16 seasons. While the stakes were different with Blytheville now in Class 4A, Hampton couldn’t see any difference in the competition after his team rallied for a 27-20 victory at Raider Field.
“It felt like a mid-season conference game, to be honest. I was proud of our kids,” Hampton said Saturday. “There were a lot of unknowns going into it and not having a scrimmage game, you always worry about tackling and ball security, and those things showed up a little bit.
“We missed quite a few tackles, so we have to get better at that. And then early on, we had a couple of turnovers, fumbles early on, but we got better as the game went on and I thought our kids played hard. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but it was a good first ballgame for sure. It was great to get a win and something really we can build on.”
The Raiders used a second-half rally to earn their first victory on the field against the Chicks since 2017.
Blytheville held a 13-6 halftime lead and was still up 20-19 in the fourth quarter before a quick drive gave Nettleton a lead it would not relinquish.
Junior running back O’Rion Pugh broke a 48-yard run to put the Raiders on the Blytheville 30-yard line. Two plays later junior quarterback Cameron Scarlett kept the football on a zone read and raced 28 yards to the end zone to give Nettleton a 25-20 lead with 9:20 left in the game.
“It’s a read play and he has the option to give it to the running back or, depending on what the defense does, to pull that and keep it himself,” Hampton said. “He made a good read and was able to get it in the end zone.”
Scarlett added the two-point conversion on another keeper and Nettleton’s defense made the lead stand.
The Raiders held twice on downs in the fourth quarter, the first time when a Blytheville pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-4 from the Chicks’ 40 with 7:45 remaining.
The Chicks drove past the 50 on their next possession, only to see the Raiders stack up quarterback Jeremiah Northern on fourth-and-1 at the 40. Linebacker Justin Livingston, defensive tackle Jorje Salas and nose tackle Win Robinson helped lead the way on a stop that gave Nettleton the football with 3:20 to play.
Safety Markellin Barber intercepted a deep pass to seal the victory with 20 seconds to play.
Hampton said Scarlett and Pugh both topped 140 yards rushing. Scarlett led the Raiders with 148 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in his first start at quarterback.
“He’s a great leader for us and we knew he was going to be special,” Hampton said. “He showed it (Friday night) and I think he’s going to get better and better.”
Pugh finished with 143 yards and two touchdowns on 23 attempts.
“He’s a very strong kid and as the game wore on, he was able to start breaking some of those tackles,” Hampton said. “He works extremely hard in the weight room and it’s showing on the field with his running ability.”
Nettleton’s next three games are away from home, starting next Friday at Pocahontas.