They lost 34-28 to Pell City in a crucial region game they needed to win to assure themselves a playoff berth and might have lost senior defensive end Trent Simpson for the rest of the season with an injury to his left knee.
Immediately after the game, Oxford coach John Grass game delivered his postgame speech with the understanding that Gadsden City had beaten Huntsville, which would have meant that Oxford (6-3, 4-3 Class 6A, Region ) made the playoffs.
Soon after he talked to the team, Grass learned that Huntsville won, 35-32, meaning the Yellow Jackets were eliminated.
After informing his team of the bad news, Grass sat on a cooler for several minutes with his head in his hands. He had met with reporters on the field and declined to react to the final word from the Huntsville game.
Oxford’s players spoke the obvious.
“Everybody is hurt. It’s painful just to hear that,” said junior running back Racean Thomas, who rushed for 241 yards on 20 carries, including touchdown runs of 59 and 57 yards. He also caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Ty Webber to bring Oxford within 34-28 with 26 seconds to play.
Senior defensive lineman Ulric Jones called the turn of events “very devastating.”
“It’s the second-to-last game I get to play with these guys,” he said.
Oxford, which lost several key players from that semifinal team of a year ago, beat Huntsville 38-21 on Sept. 21. That victory started a string of five consecutive victories after early losses to region heavies Clay-Chalkville and Gadsden City.
Oxford beat Huntsville, Florence, Lee-Huntsville, Grissom and Albertville by scores of 38-21, 35-7, 63-20, 42-14 and 56-11. That set the stage for Friday’s showdown with Pell City (6-3, 6-1), which came into the night tied with Clay-Chalkville for the region lead.
“They played their butts off, and we played extremely hard, and we played well,” Grass said on the field, immediately after the game. “I think, end of the year, that’s the two best teams in the region.”
Oxford will miss the playoffs, and missed chances Friday will haunt the Yellow Jackets.
With the game tied 14-14 in the second quarter, Oxford drove from its 42-yard line to a first down at the Pell City 11. Three Thomas runs later, the Yellow Jackets faced fourth down and two from the 3.
Webber faked a handoff to Thomas then threw quickly to his left toward Desmon Owens. Shadowed by Pell City’s Logan Dobbs, Owens lunged for the low pass, but it fell incomplete.
“I question my call on that,” Grass said. “I told them at halftime, I wished I had run the football.
“Their kid (Dobbs) made a heck of a play. He just played it. Desmon crossed his face, and he ran with him.”
Still, Oxford recovered an onsides kick at the Pell City 49, after Webber’s touchdown pass to Thomas made it 34-28 with 26 seconds to play.
A gadget play moved the Jackets closer. Webber threw over the middle to Joe McGuire, who flipped to Thomas crossing in the opposite direction. It went for 24 yards to the 25, and Oxford called timeout with 10.6 seconds left.
“I thought that one might go for a touchdown,” Grass said. “They did a good job of getting ‘Roc’ on the ground.
“We call it ‘Heartbreak’. We run it in that situation and practice it all the time. We hit it and just didn’t get the ball in there.”
Oxford got off two more snaps. Webber, who found Jarrius Orr for a 42-yard touchdown pass on Oxford’s first score, threw incomplete both times.
Pell City blew a chance early on when Thomas jumped to catch a bad punt snap and had to run, coming up short of at the Oxford 17. Oxford’s defense stiffened, and Ryan Curran missed a 35-yard field goal.
The Panthers made good on other chances, including Austin Martin’s 42-yard touchdown pass to Henry Fomby on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
Pell City also got a 10-yard touchdown run from Jaylen Lipscomb to force a 14-14 tie at halftime. Two 5-yard, Ira Burch runs turned Oxford’s 21-14 lead into a 28-21 lead for Pell City, and Martin’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Casey Bishop made it 34-21 with 2:59 left in the fourth quarter.
Pell City’s final four scores came on drives of at least seven plays. Three came on 11-play marches.
“I think we were probably the more physical team tonight,” Pell City coach David Shores said. “Generally, if you can beat a team up enough, then you come out on top. Their defensive line got a little tired.”
Grass said Oxford’s recent string of blowouts might have hurt the Jackets in a closer game.
“We’ve had three or four weeks here where we haven’t been in a ballgame,” he said. “That’s never good. I was concerned about that coming into this football game.”
The Yellow Jackets will close out their season with a non-region game against Spain Park, Grass’ former team, and it looks as though they’ll do it without Simpson.
He stepped awkwardly chasing Martin in the fourth quarter and was helped off the field. He left the stadium on crutches, with ice around his left knee.
Grass said he wasn’t sure about the extent of Simpson’s injury, but “it’s not good.”
Simpson has committed to Mississippi State, as has Jones, who called Simpson’s injury “real tough.”
“If he misses his last game, that’s going to hurt me as much as it’s going to hurt him,” Jones said. “I love him. I send prayers out to him and hope everything goes well with him and look forward to playing at the next level with him.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.