PETAL – Opponents in Class 6A gearing up to defend Oak Grove face a dilemma.
Do they spread out to stop the Warriors’ lightning-quick passing game, led by junior Kabe Barnett and a host of talented receivers? Or do they load up the box to defend a running game that features two talented backs?
Friday night, against archrival Petal, the Warriors turned to the ground game to pull away from the Panthers 37-20 in a Region 3-6A contest at Panther Stadium.
Oak Grove, ranked second in the Scorebook Live Super 10 and Class 6A rankings, remained undefeated at 4-0 overall and 2-0 in region. Petal lost its third straight game, dropping to 2-3 and 0-2.
“Always fun to win this game,” said Oak Grove coach Drew Causey. “Our kids played extremely hard. I felt like our O-line controlled the game the whole night. The running backs did a great job. The passing game was a little off, but, overall, it was a great team effort.”
The Warrior coach had it exactly right, as the big, mobile offensive line paved the way for a big night on the ground. Oak Grove ran the ball 42 times for 256 yards, and only attempted three passes in the second half.
The running game helped the Warriors hold the ball for more than 30 minutes of game time, while the Panthers only had the ball for 17 minutes, 28 seconds.
“It’s very easy (to run behind a line like that),” said Warrior senior Courtland Harris, who carried 20 tines for 125 yards and a touchdown.
“We came in run-heavy tonight. We’re a balanced team running and passing the ball. If you shut down the passing game, we can pound it on you.”
Although the Panthers didn’t have the ball much, they made the most of the time they had it, getting the bulk of their offense, and all of their scoring, on big plays.
After Oak Grove grabbed a 7-0 lead on an 11-yard run by Eugene Newell Jr., Petal senior Jeremiah Robinson broke free up the middle for a 79-yard scoring run. The PAT failed, however, and the Warriors maintained the lead, and they would never trail.
An 81-yard kickoff return by Dontavious Howard set Oak Grove up for a 21-yard Michael Owen field goal, and the Warriors turned an interception on the subsequent possession into a 14-yard scoring toss from Barnett to tight end Ahkem Toy and a 17-6 lead.
Robinson again brought Petal back, scoring on a 29-yard run, set up by a 40-yard pass play from Jackson Allen to Jonathan Harris. Robinson also ran for a successful PAT out of the wildcat formation to pull Petal within 17-14.
For the game, Robinson finished with 168 yards on 19 carries, but he was held in check in the second half, rushing eight times for just 20 yards, and the Panthers failed to generate a consistent passing game.
“We were expected that inside run, and ultimately it came down to, as a team, we didn’t fill all the gaps,” said Oak Grove senior linebacker Zach Little. “He would read where the inside gap was, and if it was there, he would hit it. If not, he’d just bounce it outside.
“Once we concentrated on stopping that inside run and keeping contain, it was game over.”
The Warriors had two chances to pad their lead late in the second half, but both times the Panthers responded with interceptions in the end zone. The second game came after an apparent Oak Grove touchdown on a run by Barnett was wiped out by an inadvertent whistle.
“Between some stupid penalties and an inadvertent whistle, I thought we had a great effort tonight,” said Causey. “The idea was just to get after them as hard as we could.”
Oak Grove would not be denied in the second half.
After getting a three-and-out on the opening possession of the third quarter, Warrior junior Foster Mitchell returned the Petal punt 34 yards to the Panther 28-yard-line, and four runs got Oak Grove in the end zone on a 5-yard run by Barnett.
It wasn’t all smashmouth for the Warriors, as Barnett hooked up with Tyrell Pollard for an 84-yard catch-and-run late in the third quarter, after a promising Panther drive was stopped at midfield.
Petal used a big pass play to get back in the game, as Allen connected with Micah Cherry for a 65-yard touchdown pass.
However, the Warriors snuffed out the try for a two-point conversion, then took the ensuing kickoff 56 yards on seven plays, with Harris getting the score from 18 yards out.
Newell added 82 yards on 15 rushes for Oak Grove. The Warriors made life miserable for Allen, holding the Panther senior to 8 of 19 passing for 18 yards.
“We wanted to get 100 percent pressure, getting after the quarterback every play,” said Little about defending Petal’s passing game. “We felt like if we did that, he wouldn’t have any time to throw the ball.”
Oak Grove will return to Warrior Field next week, hosting Meridian, while Petal hits the road to face Brandon.