SOUTHSIDE — Oxford entered the 2014 season with a lot of questions.
How the offense would do without tailback Roc Thomas, who is now at Auburn? What about a defense with only one returning starter? Is the honeymoon over for Oxford alumnus and head coach Ryan Herring?
If Thursday night’s 42-21 season-opening win against Southside is any indication, Oxford is doing just fine. The passing game rolled up more than 300 yards, and with the exception of a trio of big plays, the defense produced a solid effort.
“Everyone on our team believes we have the best offense in the state, and we believe we’re better right now than we were at this point last season,” wide receiver Jake Cook said. “We have a team that’s going to compete really far into the playoffs. We’ve got big hopes this year, and we’re going to work harder than any team in the state.”
Cook backed up his strong words with an even stronger game.
While Southside focused mostly on Oxford star receiver Tre Gamble, quarterback Ty Webber connected with Cook seven times for 218 yards and two touchdowns. Webber finished the night 14-of-19 for 306 yards, two passing touchdowns and a rushing score.
“Man, they came through,” Herring said. “They were going to double cover Gamble, and I would, too — best receiver in the state. I’d double or triple cover him,” Herring said. “We have another threat with Jake Cook, and Ty did a great job getting him the ball, and the line did a great job protecting.”
Webber hit Cook at least once in the first eight possessions — with the streak not ending until late in the third quarter — but things came full circle early in the second when the receiver caught a perfectly thrown pass in stride to give the Yellow Jackets a 14-0 lead.
The duo did it again later that quarter, scoring this time on a 53-yard play.
“We didn’t know we’d have that much success with Cook,” Herring said. “We knew Cook was capable, but we thought it’d be more run-pass. Pass was what got them.”
While the offense scored three times in the second quarter, once in the third and once in the fourth, the defense flexed throughout most of the game, especially the first half.
Oxford’s defense didn’t allow a first down until Southside got on the board on a 74-yard double pass by Tristian Shaw to Holt Keeling early in the second quarter. Southside didn't get another first down until the closing minutes of the period.
Outside of the trick play, the Yellow Jackets struggled only with allowing big plays.
A 1-yard score by Aleric Williams late in the second quarter was set up by a 44-yard run by Keeling. Williams added a 65-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, as well.
Even with the big plays, Oxford held Southside to less than 200 yards rushing.
“We did a good job preparing,” linebacker Kenny Britt said. “We can thank our defensive coordinator (Chad Cochran) and head coach for that. If it wasn’t for our scout team, then we wouldn’t have done as well. We knew Southside’s offense pretty good. I want to thank K.J. Adams for being a leader. He helped us out when we got tired.
“As long as we play as a team, I know we’ll only get better.”
Oxford’s Thomas Rudolph finished the game with 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Dylan Siplin rushed for 34 yards and a score. For Southside, Williams led the way with 108 yards.
Southside entered the game at a slight disadvantage, missing offensive lineman Tyler Carr, an Auburn commitment. At the same time, the atmosphere, which featured about 5,000 fans, was electric.
“Maybe we can get a rivalry going with them, and it’d be a good game to play every year,” Herring said. “The crowd as unbelievable and I think it was a good deal.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.