After back-to-back Oxford touchdowns, Hoover put together a time-consuming, methodical and demoralizing 17-play, 96-yard drive to take the lead for good.
Hoover added another score later, but it didn’t really matter. Oxford never regained its offensive magic of the first and third quarters. The Bucs won 32-22 and advance to the state title game, while Oxford ended its season with a 12-2 mark.
“We kept fighting as hard as we could,” Oxford senior linebacker Jacob Ritten said of the drive. “… we just should have executed better.”
Giving up the drive itself was bad enough. The timing made it a rusty dagger into the Yellow Jackets’ heart.
Oxford had just weathered what — at that time — was the best Hoover had. After Oxford held an early 9-0 lead, the Bucs closed the first half out with two deep-ball touchdowns in a span of 91 seconds.
“We were worried all week they were going to take our zone game away,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said.
“But we thought there would be times we could get some matchups that we liked.”
Oxford, though, was unfazed. And good fortune helped.
The Jackets forced two fumbles in the first three times Hoover touched the ball in the second half. Behind Racean Thomas’ running, Jackson Stephens’ throwing and Coty Spurling’s catching, the Jackets took a 22-17 lead with 7:11 to go in the third quarter.
Thomas had both of the scores. The first, a 9-yarder, capped a five-play drive where Oxford alternated between Thomas runs and Stephens-to-Spurling passes.
The second came on second-and-goal from the 7 and capped an eight-play drive aided by an unsportsmanlike Hoover penalty.
But Thomas’ second second-half touchdown was the last time Oxford touched the ball that quarter.
Hoover shook off the two scores — and even a miscue fielding the ensuing kickoff— and moved the ball like it hadn’t all night. Puzzling as it was to where that offense had been, especially to rear its head at such a trying time, Niblett didn’t use many words to explain it, but his message was sound.
“They’ve been there before,” said the Hoover coach of his players.
The Super Six ticket Hoover punched Friday night was the fourth in Niblett’s four years after leaving Oxford following a perfect but playoff-less AHSAA sanctioned season.
The Yellow Jackets have not been in that 6A semifinal situation before.
They’re still relative newcomers to the 6A pond, and they’re the small fish, too.
With enrollment half that of Hoover’s approximately 1,900 students and without a body of work to prove to the rest of the state it belonged among the elite teams, the sign hanging in the stands “Didn’t expect to see you here” may not be justified when the next football season rolls around.
“Not anymore,” Niblett said. “When you talk about good 6A football now, you’re going to have to mention Oxford.”
Bran Strickland is the Assistant Managing Editor at The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.