NASHVILLE — It started with a speech, made 364 days ago by Nashville coach Stephen Kozuszek. His team was down 35-0 at halftime in Du Quoin, and Kozuszek had some things he wanted to get off his chest.
“That halftime started this season off,“ two-way lineman Dylan Kwiatkowski said. “He told us that Nashville beats the teams that aren’t as good and when we play the good teams, we choke. We act like we can’t compete with those teams.
“His whole point was, we’re better than that. We have to know that, and it started that night.”
It came to a loud crescendo Friday night, when the Hornets gained revenge with an inspired 191-yard performance by backup running back Luke Ehret and dumped the Indians 29-20 in a SIRR Mississippi contest.
Ehret was suddenly thrust into a starring role when junior Jullian Metcalf, who gave Nashville (7-1, 4-1) a quick 7-0 lead 2:22 into the game on a 2-yard burst up the middle, injured his leg on the Hornets’ next drive and didn’t return.
Those who thought there might have been a dropoff from the accomplished Metcalf to the unheralded Ehret learned differently. Ehret made it 14-0 with a 7-yard run at the 5:02 mark of the first quarter, then ripped off a 53-yard gain on his next carry.
“I’ve been practicing hard all year, and I had to step up,” Ehret said. “The coaches were motivating me. The line was very important to me. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Ehret’s ability to grind out tough yardage between the tackles eventually opened up Nashville’s passing game. After a first half in which he tossed an interception that kept the Hornets from perhaps establishing a three-score lead, quarterback Daymeon Baugh hit 9-of-11 passes in the second half, five of them going for first downs.
A 14-yarder to Tabor Kozuszek and a 6-yard connection with Tanner Bergmann kept the defense honest on the tie-breaking drive in the fourth quarter. Ehret was the star of that march, collecting 38 yards on eight carries. The last one came from a yard out with 5:21 left, giving Nashville a 27-20 lead.
Kwiatkowski, who opened up holes for Ehret most of the night, then slammed the door shut 50 seconds later. On 2nd-and-15 from the Du Quoin 5, quarterback Josh Heape dropped into the end zone to throw. Kwiatkowski maneuvered his way around a blocker and tossed Heape to the wet turf for a safety that made it a nine-point game.
“I was just working my technique,” Kwiatkowski said. “I thought to myself that this would be a big time to make a play. And there was the quarterback, in the end zone. I have to say this is one of the biggest plays of my career.”
Equally big might have been a decision to punt from the Indians’ 36 late in the third quarter with momentum seemingly on the guests’ side. Bergmann knocked it out of bounds at the 7. Du Quoin drove 68 yards but stalled out at the 25, leading to Ehret’s third and most important touchdown.
“That was a big play in the game,” Indians coach AJ Hill said of Bergmann’s punt. “We have to find ways on special teams to get yardage back. Then we take a sack in the end zone, and we just can’t do that. But we can’t point the finger at anyone. We have to look in the mirror, myself included.”
Westly Milam rushed for 234 yards on 22 carries for Du Quoin (6-2, 3-2), including 95 and 71-yard touchdowns that helped forge a 20-20 tie midway through the third quarter. But it was an unlikely star who had the final say in the Hornets’ biggest win since they reached the state semifinals in 2015.
“The adrenaline kept me going,” Ehret said. “We got them back for last year.”