Potential shone through in the form of 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
But at times in the Yellow Jackets’ 25-16 loss to No. 2 Clay-Chalkville on Friday, the inexperience was blinding.
One play after dropping Cougar quarterback Hayden Moore for a 10-yard loss, the Yellow Jackets’ fifth sack of the night, Oxford was flagged for back-to-back encroachment calls.
Instead of a third-and-16, the two penalties exactly nullified the Cougars’ loss in yardage, putting them in a much more favorable position inside the chains. Moore took the ball, ran left and willed his way to the first down. The Cougars scored the decisive touchdown five plays later.
“We shot ourselves in the foot too many times tonight,” Oxford coach John Grass said. “They’re ranked No. 2 for a reason. I think they’re every bit that good.
“I was proud of my guys for the way they battled.”
That battle for Oxford (1-1 overall, 0-1 Class 6A, Region 7) came all on the defensive side.
With all eyes focused on Southeastern Conference-caliber wide receiver DeAngelo Woods, Clay-Chalkville used that to its advantage from the get-go. With heavy coverage on Woods, Brian Clark took a slip screen 71 yards to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead.
Clay-Chalkville added another touchdown at the end of the first quarter (a 21-yard run by Terelle West) and a field goal as time expired at the half to build a 17-7 lead.
Oxford’s lone points in the first half came on a blown coverage. With just more than five minutes remaining in the half, Jarious Orr got behind the secondary and found himself nearly 15 yards away from the nearest defender. After waiting on and then coming back to the pass from Ty Webber, he outraced the recovering Cougar defense to the end zone.
With limited success against the Clay-Chalkville defense in the first half, Oxford found success keeping the Cougars’ defense off balance on its second drive. After three straight carries by Racean Thomas on the first drive (netting 7 yards), Oxford alternated between Webber completions and Thomas runs and was helped out by a pass interference call to set up Thomas’ 7-yard touchdown to pull the Jackets to within 16-14 with 6:16 left in the third quarter.
Forcing Clay-Chalkville (2-0, 1-0) to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive put Oxford in prime position to take over the lead.
Instead, one yellow flag did as much as anything to take it away. After crossing midfield, a holding call put the Jackets in second and 19. A miscommunication on a route turned into an interception two plays later.
“We battled, and we put ourselves in position to win in the fourth quarter,” Grass said. “It was exactly what we wanted to do. We just weren’t able to finish.”
The ensuing drive was the game-changer for the Cougars — a 13-play, 73-yard march keyed by Moore’s big run. Near the first-down marker, Moore was spun around but never stopped moving his legs. He ran backward — but in the correct direction — nearly five yards to pick up the crucial first down.
“I knew (the first-down marker) was close,” he said. “I just kept moving any way I could.”
The ups and downs were something Grass pointed to earlier in the week and in the preseason as growing pains the young Jackets’ defense would have to endure.
While those errors were apparent, he said he saw positives.
“We made improvements in a lot of areas,” he said. “We lost a battle, but we didn’t lose the war.”