Jackson Stephens took a safety to bring visiting Spain Park within 42-34 with 3:07 to play, but Stuart Chandler came through with the last of Oxford’s four interceptions in the second half.
The Yellow Jackets ran out the clock and survived their first-round AHSAA playoff game, advancing to the second round for the second consecutive year after two consecutive first-round losses.
Oxford (10-1) will play at home next week against Northridge (10-1), which beat Hazel Green 19-12 on Friday.
“We’re not finished yet,” Stephens said. “We don’t want like the second-round loss, either. We want to make it all the way.”
Stephens was among many reasons why Oxford still has a chance, passing for 193 yards and two touchdowns.
He got lots of help from sophomore running back Racean Thomas, who carried 30 times for 301 yards and three scores. Also, Coty Spurling amassed three touchdowns and 199 total yards, including 113 on four pass receptions.
Oxford ran up 371 rushing yards and outgained Spain Park 564 yards to 282. The Yellow Jackets held the Jaguars to 38 rushing yards, minus-6 in the second half.
Oxford’s defense also came up with four interceptions, all in the second half and all in Oxford territory. Trae Elston had two, and Chandler and Monte Bass had one apiece.
The Yellow Jackets rallied from a 24-14 deficit at halftime with 28 unanswered points in the second half then held on for dear life after three breathtaking mistakes.
They all came after Spain Park’s Nick Mullens passed 10 yards to Reid Reinagel for a touchdown and threw to Payton Gray for the conversion to cut Oxford’s lead to 42-32 with 5:03 to play.
First, Thomas lost track of where he was on the field and knelt after catching the ensuing kickoff. Oxford started that possession on its 3-yard line.
“I thought I was in the end zone,” Thomas said.
That Oxford possession nearly ended in a fumble. Dominique Williams lost control after taking the handoff on an end-around but recovered.
That set up fourth down, and Stephens lined up to punt. He took the snap, held the ball until approached by a Spain Park defender then ran out of the back of the end zone.
The resulting safety made it a one-possession game at 42-34, meaning Spain Park could tie the game with a touchdown and 2-point conversion.
Stephens and Oxford coach John Grass blamed miscommunication. The call was for Stephens to hold the ball as long as possible.
“We wanted to run the clock, not take a safety,” Grass said. “We would have never done that.”
Spain Park coach Chip Lindsey said he was surprised to get the chance to tie the game.
“That’s football,” he said. “Things like that happen.”
Hairy moments at the end belied a dominant second half for Oxford. Yellow Jacket players came out of the locker room exhorting their crowd and taking the action to Spain Park.
Thomas kicked the Oxford rally into gear with a 49-yard run, which he followed two plays later with a 10-yard touchdown run to cap the Jackets’ first possession of the second half.
Two Oxford possessions later, Stephens lofted a 44-yard bomb to Elston to the Spain Park 10-yard line, and Spurling finished the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to give the Jackets the lead for good, 28-24.
A holding penalty wiped out Spurling’s 43-yard, catch-and-run score two possessions later, but he came back with a 58-yard run on the next play to set up Thomas’ 2-yard touchdown run to make it 35-24.
That drive came after Elston intercepted Mullens’ fourth-down pass at Oxford’s 18.
Thomas ended the 28-point onslaught with a 65-yard touchdown run, which immediately followed Bass’ interception.
What did Grass say at halftime?
“Coach just told us go out there and hit them in the mouth, don’t quit,” Thomas said.
Thomas hit Spain Park all night, even as the Jaguars seemed determined to hit him. He took two big one-on-one shots in the first half but kept coming.
“It was a big challenge for me because it was only my second playoff game as a varsity player,” Thomas said. “I had to find a way to cope with it, and my team got me through it.”
Spain Park built its 24-14 halftime lead largely on the strength of Mullens, who completed 21 of 39 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns on the night.
Mullen’s 59-yard bomb to Michael Nelson-Brown set up a 6-yard Cameron Young run, which tied the game at 7-7. Mullens made it 14-7 with a 10-yard pass to Garland Grisham and hit two big passes on a drive that ended in Young’s 3-yard touchdown run.
A Je’Niah Jackson interception and 17-yard return to Oxford’s 4 set up a 20-yard field goal to make it 24-14 at 2:01 of the second quarter, but interceptions doomed Spain Park in the second half.
“It’s a combination of things,” said Lindsey, whose team finished 5-6. “The most important thing is Oxford played some really good defense in the second half.
“We had some slips and some protection busts and maybe a bad decision or two, but at the end of the day we just didn’t make enough plays in the second half. Oxford, you have to give them credit.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.