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Nov. 25—TUPELO — The air was thick with anticipation at Tupelo's football stadium Wednesday morning.
As music from Ludacris and AC/DC blared across the blue turf, the Golden Wave were preparing for the program's biggest game in nearly a decade. At 7 o'clock tonight, Tupelo (13-0) will host rival Starkville (10-3) in the Class 6A North half title game.
"We wouldn't want it any other way," Tupelo coach Ty Hardin said following Wednesday's practice. "We're playing Starkville for a North half championship. And I know Starkville, they wouldn't want it any other way, either.
"This is pretty awesome; this is pretty classic. You couldn't script it any better."
Tupelo is vying for its first state championship game berth since 2013. It's been a pretty smooth road so far, although the Wave found themselves in a fight the last time these teams met. Despite Starkville quarterback Trey Petty being out that game, Tupelo struggled to pull out a 24-17 win on Oct. 7 in Starkville.
Petty is back at full strength, and the Yellowjackets now have the kind of running game they lacked the first half of the season. Curtis Willis took over at tailback in the Tupelo game and rushed for 207 yards. On the season, he has 721 yards and four touchdowns.
"Willis has been their MVP," Hardin said. "Nobody knew about him as a running back, and he has wreaked havoc against everybody ever since."
Petty is also a big part of Starkville's run game, with 569 yards and 11 touchdowns. Through the air, he has 2,341 yards, 26 TDs and seven interceptions.
Tupelo cornerback Fred Adams said that when it comes to Petty, it's important to be "aware of his arm strength and intelligence, also his running. He has great running ability. I keep those in the back of my head."
Tupelo's defense has been tough to crack, especially at home, where opponents have scored a grand total of 17 points in eight games. The 17 points Starkville scored in the first meeting are the most Tupelo has allowed in a game this fall. The defense was not at full strength that night, with linebacker Tyler Vaughn among those who were out injured.
Freshman defensive end JaReylan McCoy (12 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks) will be playing with a broken right hand tonight, but the Wave defense is otherwise in great shape.
"It's going to come down to fundamentals and technique, in my opinion, and who has the least amount of mistakes in all phases — offense, defense, special teams," Starkville coach Chris Jones said. "It's assignment football, playing the game the right way."
That's how the Jackets have been playing since the Tupelo loss, which was their third in a row. They barely made the playoffs as a No. 4 seed and have stayed hot, with six-straight wins.
"The good thing for us is we've had the playoff mindset since we lost those three games, because we couldn't afford to lose any," Jones said.
The Golden Wave understand how much better Starkville is now versus seven weeks ago. Hardin said his team came out "flat" in the first meeting, but that shouldn't be an issue tonight.
"I know our guys are going to be motivated," Hardin said. "That's what they wanted. That's who this coaching staff wanted to play again. We want to beat who we think is one of the best teams in north Mississippi."