HATTIESBURG – After a virtual walkover last week in its season opener, Oak Grove was looking to make a statement against Hattiesburg in the Hub City Classic.
But the Warriors came away with more questions than answers after a tougher-than-expected 27-0 victory over the Tigers. Oak Grove, the consensus No. 1 ranked team in the state, improved to 2-0; Hattiesburg dropped to 0-3.
“Our offense didn’t play well tonight,” said Oak Grove coach Drew Causey. “Our O-line didn’t play well at all, we made a ton of mistakes, just letting people run free on pass protection. We’ve got a long way to go to get to where we need to be.”
Things seemed to be going according to plan in the early going, as the Warriors jumped out a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter.
But Hattiesburg stiffened and Oak Grove’s offense ground to a halt, with sloppy play against the aggressive Tiger defense.
“I’m proud of our defense,” said Hattiesburg coach Tony Vance. “They’re the strength of our football team. We’ve just got to find a way to help them out on offense. We wanted to control the line of scrimmage, control the clock and shorten the game.”
Fortunately for Oak Grove, the Warriors got a breakout game from junior tailback J.Q. Gray, who accounted for more than 230 yards of offense and two touchdowns.
Gray’s effort in the second half offset a subpar performance by senior quarterback Kabe Barnett, who struggled after a fast start.
“The whole team gave a great effort; it wasn’t just me,” said Gray, who moved to running back after playing wide receiver last season. “It was kind of hard to get used to it at first. But once the O-line started learning and we started clicking.”
Gray stepped up big for the Warriors in the second half, rushing for 166 yards on just 10 carries after halftime. He finished with 180 yards for the game on 14 rushes and caught two passes for 54 yards.
“He had a great game,” said Causey. “He’s a heck of a football player. He can do a lot of things from different positions for us. I’m glad he’s on our side.”
Barnett looked sharp on Oak Grove’s first two drives, which resulted in touchdowns.
The Warriors took the opening kickoff and drove 63 yards in six plays, with passes of 35 yards to Gray and 20 yards to senior Tyrell Pollard getting Oak Grove to the Hattiesburg 1-yard-line, where senior Quintin Sterling scored on what would be his only carry of the night.
After stopping Hattiesburg on a three-and-out, Barnett went right back to work, driving the Warriors 58 yards on 10 plays, including passes of 19 yards each to Dontavious Howard and Gray to set up Barnett’s 3-yard scoring run.
However, the PAT kick failed, a harbinger of struggles to come.
Indeed, Hattiesburg had a golden opportunity to get back in the game when the Tigers recovered a fumbled punt at the Warrior 15.
But four plays only netted three yards, and the Tigers never got closer to scoring the rest of the game.
“We’ve just got to keep working,” Vance said. “Keep coming to practice every day and working to get better, working to execute better. We’ll get better, I promise you that. These guys are going to keep working, keep grinding, and we will get better.”
Credit the Warrior defense for a light’s out performance, as they held Hattiesburg to just 112 yards of offense, including 62 yards on the ground, most of that coming from sophomore Tavares Wade, who earned 53 yards on 20 carries.
Oak Grove was especially tough on the big downs, as the Tigers were only 3 of 15 on third down, and 0 for 3 on fourth down.
“The defense played really well,” said Oak Grove senior linebacker Braxton Miller. “We got our first shutout in, I think, the past two years. We flew around the ball and made plays.
“We were expecting them to line up a lot of people on one side and pound the ball. But we found a solution for it. We’ve worked hard on getting third-down stops, because last year we struggled with that. That’s been a big focus, to get off the field on third down.”
After stopping Hattiesburg on downs, the Warriors went right back to work, as Barnett connected with Jaylon Aborom for a 44-yard pickup to set up Howard’s 1-yard touchdown run and a 20-0 lead.
At that point, three minutes into the second quarter, Barnett was 10 of 12 passing for 159 yards. After that, however, he was just 3 of 14 for 59 yards, and 45 of that came on one play late in the third quarter, which was immediately followed by an interception.
“Kabe was back there running for his life a lot,” said Causey.
“But Kabe’s got to do a better job of stepping up and making a hard throw and possibly getting hit. Tyrell’s got to do a better job of running routes and getting open, and not letting the guy hold him all night long.”
But that’s when the Oak Grove defense stepped to the fore. The Warriors held Hattiesburg on consecutive three-and-outs, then Miller stopped a promising Tiger drive at the end of the half with an interception.
“(The receiver) was within five yads, so I pressed him, then dropped back in my zone and it was right in front of me,” said Miller. “I tried to run, but they were already there.
The second half was the Gray Show. After stopping Hattiesburg on the opening possession of the third quarter, Gray had runs of 19 yards and 29 yards on a reverse to get Oak Grove inside the Tiger 10 at the 8-yard -line.
But Howard lost three yards on two runs, Barnett was sacked for a loss of a yard and a 29-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
Late in the third quarter, Barnett found senior Foster Mitchell open for a 45-yard gain to the Hattiesburg 30, then Gray ran for 7 yards to end the period with Oak Grove knocking ont eh door at the 23-yard-line.
But on the next play, Tiger senior Dillon Crowell got in the way of a low pass and returned the pick 25 yards to midfield.
“They’re good,” said Causey of Hattiesburg’s defense. “That’s an extremely athletic football team. I’ve said that all along. But our expectation is very high for our football team, and that just wasn’t acceptable.”
Again, however, a promising Tiger drive, keyed by runs of 10 and 9 yards by Wade, fizzled out at the Warrior 27.
“Our defense played their butt off all night long,” said Causey. “
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came after Hattiesburg got much the better of an exchange of punts, pinning Oak Grove inside the Warrior 1.
On first down, Gray took an inside handoff, burst through the middle of the line and dashed 64 yards before the Tigers could run him down.
Oak Grove didn’t score on that drive, but after another fourth-down stop, Gray roared up the middle untouched for 41-yard scoring run with 1:11 to play in the game to finally allow the Warriors to breathe a little easier.
Oak Grove originally had an open date scheduled for next week, but the Warriors have picked up a home game next Friday against high-flying Greenville Christian, which has been getting considerable buzz around the state.
“I think everybody has to improve,” said Miller. “You can never be too good; there’s always room for improvement. There is so much we need to improve on, and I think we will.”
Hattiesburg will also be back home next week, hosting Meridian.