And so did Oxford’s production.
After thrilling victories against Carrolton (Ga.) and rival Gadsden City in the season’s first two weeks, the Yellow Jackets fell 30-21 to No. 5 Clay-Chalkville in Class 6A, Region 7 play Friday, failing to match their second-half output to their first.
The Yellow Jackets went scoreless in the third and fourth quarters after racking up close to 200 yards of offense and 11 first downs in the first 24 minutes.
“We were in second-and-long a lot, third-and-long, penalties, we had a holding call,” Oxford coach John Grass said, listing the series of miscues that led to his team’s undoing in the battle between two top 10 unbeatens.
“We threw away the ball and got backed up. Hats off to them. They just outplayed us in the second half.”
Going up 21-14 at halftime, No. 8 Oxford (2-1, 1-1) looked as if it was on its way to its first road victory of the season.
Its stars were shining and its defense was holding up against a Cougars’ offense, which includes three receivers who stand at least 6-foot-2, despite the absence of standout defensive back Coty Spurling, who was on the sideline with his arm in a sling and didn’t dress.
Sophomore running back Racean Thomas also had 13 carries for 105 yards and two scores in the first half, including a 60-yard gainer that came on the Yellow Jackets’ third play from scrimmage and gave them a 7-0 lead with 8:30 to play in the first quarter.
Quarterback Jackson Stephens was eight of 12 passes for 74 yards and may have gone perfect had it not been for a number of drops.
Trae Elston turned what would’ve been a sure interception for the Cougars into an 8-yard touchdown reception when he snatched away a batted ball near the 5 and made his way into the end zone with 2:48 to play in the first. Thomas scored on a 2-yard plunge with 1:49 left in the seconds that capped a 14-play, 59 yard-drive.
However, things fell apart quickly for the Yellow Jackets in the second half.
They managed just 70 yards and two first downs and those came on their last drive. Meanwhile they turned the ball over twice and committed five of 12 penalties on the game.
Stephens was picked off on the Yellow Jackets’ first possession. The Cougars (3-0) converted the opportunity when quarterback Jacob Thomas found 6-4 receiver DeAndre Woods, who holds an offer from Auburn, on a 12-yard touchdown reception to tie the game at 21.
Jacob Thomas was the picture of accuracy, completing 15 of 21 passing attempts for 159 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions and found five different receivers. Both of his scoring strikes in the second half were in third-and-long situations.
“Oxford is not the average bear,” Clay-Chalkville coach Jerry Hood said. “He can run around on a lot of teams but Oxford has athletes he can’t run around on. We felt like he had to get the job done in the other way he can get the job done and he did it. He’s an awesome football player.”
The second came on a third-and-15 when he hooked up with Justin Burdette with 3:54 left in the third to give Clay-Chalkville a 27-21 lead. Robert Greene added a 32-yard field goal for the game’s final score with 8:55 to play.
Oxford’s final drive ended on the Clay-Chalkville 25 when Stephens was intercepted again with 1:10 remaining. He ended the night, completing 12 of 27 passes with a touchdown and two interceptions. Racean Thomas gained 127 yards on 19 carries but had just 24 yards on six second-half carries.
“I think we needed this loss,” said Elston, who had five catches for 61 yards. “I think if we would’ve beaten Clay-Chalkville we probably would’ve gotten the big head. I think we needed it.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep football for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.