NORMAN — What started out a wet, sloppy and mistake-filled game turned into a tight, dramatic and still wet contest that saw both Norman High and Southmoore trading big plays back and forth down to the wire.
It was the SaberCats who finished with one more big play in them, sacking NHS quarterback Jakcob Dean on a critical fourth down to hang on for a 33-30 victory in a game fraught with playoff implications.
Southmoore struck first when Dunya Rice returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead. It was just the opening volley in a game full of them. NHS matched the SaberCats every step of the way and was in a position to win late.
But it wasn’t to be. Down 33-30, the Tigers partially blocked a SaberCats’ punt and took over on the Southmoore 36-yard line. But they went nowhere in three plays, and Dean was sacked on fourth down to hand the ball back to the SaberCats (4-3, 2-2) with 2:45 left on the clock and the Tigers (3-4, 1-3) out of timeouts.
One first down later, and Southmoore had delivered a huge boost to its playoff chances while nearly crushing the Tigers’. NHS, with games against top-five teams in Lawton and Edmond Santa Fe left on the schedule, must win out if they want to return to the postseason. Southmoore, on the other hand, will need to win two of three against Edmond Memorial, Choctaw and Mustang to do the same.
Both teams had their chances on Friday. Bogged down by a steady rain and the loss of freshman quarterback Connor Uselton, who was still out with a concussion suffered last week, the SaberCats were forced to run the ball almost exclusively. They threw just two passes on the night but found success with the big play, with four touchdown runs of more than 40 yards.
“It shows what you can do when you adapt and overcome,” Southmoore coach Jeff Brickman told his team after the game. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. We had some unselfish receivers out there blocking, and defensively we made plays when it counted.”
For the second straight week NHS’ offense was fluid and explosive, something that had eluded the Tigers in a three-game losing streak that put them in the hole early in District 6A-4. Running back Darius Manning made an unexpected return, and his presence helped the Tigers accumulate more than 300 yards on the ground.
But it wasn’t enough. The Tigers had several chances late in the game to take the lead, but came up short every time, including a fake punt midway through the fourth quarter that went awry. In a sign of the field conditions, the Tigers also hurt themselves by putting the ball on the ground five times, though they recovered every one.
Despite the loss and the fact that the Tigers must now run the table to have a shot at the playoffs, coach Greg Nation was proud of the way his team performed in what has become one of the better rivalry games in the district.
“They played Tiger football tonight,” he said of his team. “They played hard and they never quit. They represented our program and our school well. We made good plays tonight; they just outscored us.”
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