The Warriors withstood a late comeback bid by the Titans to claim the 2021 Hog Mountain Bowl trophy last Friday.
Rivals Oconee County High School and North Oconee High School met on the gridiron to open the new season. Their match, held at North Oconee’s Titan Stadium, ended in a 35-28 victory for the Warriors.
Oconee County quarterback Jacob Wright credited his team’s preparation for the victory, saying the Warriors had successfully simulated North Oconee’s attack all week during practice.
“We put a lot of work in it,” Wright said. “We run what they run every day at practice. We were ready for it.”
Wright went 8-for-12 on the night with 255 yards passing and three touchdowns. Two of his touchdown throws came within the first eight minutes.
On their first possession after recording a fourth down stop defensively, the Warriors got on the board when Wright threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Jake Johnson.
Oconee County kicked it back to North Oconee. On the Titans’ first play of the drive, Oconee’s Cam Thurmond picked off a pass from North Oconee quarterback Gavin Black. Thurmond returned the interception into the Titans’ territory.
“Our coaches put us in our position,” Thurmond said. “I just got in there and made the play. I give all the credit to the coaches. The guys on the scout team give me a good look every day of the week.”
Wright connected with Darius Johnson Jr. for a 24-yard touchdown strike on the ensuing possession.
That score gave Oconee a 14-0 lead with 4:09 left in the first quarter.
North Oconee was not out of the game by any stretch, but the Warriors’ quickly established lead went a long way toward determining the outcome.
“It was great momentum,” Wright said. “Especially with it being packed this year, it was electric. It gave us a cushion to keep the gas going.”
Unfortunately for the Warriors, North Oconee cranked up its rushing attack soon after the second touchdown.
The Titans found gaps up the middle of the field and picked up enough yards to keep the chains moving. Oconee got the ball back but a fumble by Jake Johnson returned possession to the Titans.
Black completed a fourth down throw to Jack Fabris to move the ball to the Oconee 14-yard line during the next drive. The Titans fumbled on the next play but the ball bounced forward out of bounds to set up a first-and-goal scenario.
North Oconee’s Rodrick Finch scored on a 1-yard run to make it a 14-7 game with 4:20 left before halftime.
That play seemed to shift control to North Oconee, but Wright found Darius Johnson for a 70-yard touchdown throw on the Warriors’ ensuing possession.
The Titans scored again before halftime, making it a 21-14 game at the break.
Finch scored on a 3-yard carry to tie the game 21-21 with 6:18 left in the third quarter.
C.J. Jones broke the tie with a touchdown run about three minutes later.
The teams went scoreless the next few minutes before an acrobatic play by Jake Johnson gave the Oconee offense a spark. Jake Johnson and a North Oconee defender got their hands on a pass thrown over the middle by Wright, but Johnson wrestled it away and recorded a first down catch.
That play set up a touchdown pass from Darius Johnson to Dylan Manders with 11:53 remaining in the game.
Darius Johnson – who plays at wide receiver – said that marked his first career passing touchdown.
“It was called at the right time,” Darius Johnson said about the play. “We've been practicing it over and over. ... When I first had the ball, my hands were very sweaty. I just trusted and it worked.”
Down 35-21, North Oconee got the ball back and marched down the field. Elder scored on a rushing touchdown to cut the deficit to just one touchdown.
Oconee’s offense failed to convert a first down but, on fourth down, the Warriors drew an encroachment penalty from the Titans. The 5-yard penalty gave Oconee enough for a first down, and the Warriors drained the clock from there to seal the victory.
North Oconee kept itself in the game by gashing the interior of the Warriors’ defense for rushing yardage.
Elder and Finch both ripped off big gains at times. Thurmond said it was clear the Warriors must improve near the line of scrimmage.
“We've got to stop them up front,” Thurmond said. “We've got to work on some stuff up front but we'll get there.”
The Warriors are an experienced team as a whole but they are replacing five longtime starters who graduated last year. Head coach Travis Noland said that element cannot be overlooked when evaluating Oconee’s defense.
“Our defense could not get off the field on third down,” Noland said. “I'm not making excuses, but we're replacing five kids that are on Division I rosters right now off of that side of the ball, so it's going to take us a while. There's a lot of first-time starters out there, especially on defense. Hopefully, we can find what works and find ways to get better.”
The Warriors are scheduled to host Cedar Shoals this Friday for their home opener. Cedar’s opener against Clarke Central was moved due to COVID-19 concerns but Noland said last Friday that the Jaguars indicated they should be ready to play this week.
Because their opponent has not yet played and there is no new film, Noland said the Warriors are primarily focused on improving themselves heading into Friday’s game.
“I don't know anything about Cedar,” Noland said. “I just know what we've got to do, which is go back to work and work on blocking, tackling and getting lined up. [North Oconee's] backs are really good, especially [Elder], he's a load. We've got to look at the film, evaluate and see where we'll go from here.”