The Yellow Jackets made big plays on offense, including six of 20 yards or more against a Red Devils team which came into the contest riding a six-game win streak. On defense, they limited a bunch which was averaging 42 points a game to 113 yards in the second half.
But to anyone in attendance at Lamar Field, it was abundantly evident that it was Oxford’s play on special teams that ultimately catapulted the Yellow Jackets to their fifth win in a row.
They produced 16 points on a pair of blocked punts recovered in the end zone for touchdowns and added two more on a safety to account for the point differential between them and the ninth-ranked Red Devils.
“We just prepared the way we do every week,” Oxford coach John Grass said. “We just came up fortunate enough to get a couple blocks. They had a bad snap on one over their heads. So, that was the difference in the game.”
Central Phenix City coach Woodrow Lowe didn’t mince any words in describing what befell his team.
“We had two punts blocked for touchdowns and we had a safety,” Lowe said. “And we lost by that amount of margin. That tells you the outcome of the game.”
Other things played a part in the Red Devils peril as well.
After scoring touchdowns on three of its first five possessions on 216 yards of offense in the first half, Phenix City only reached the end zone once in the second half while amassing a little more than half the yards it did in the first two quarters.
But for all intents and purposes, it was really as simple as Lowe put it.
After going ahead 7-0 47 seconds into the game on a 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jackson Stephens to Racean Thomas, Oxford’s Dominique Williams came off the edge and blocked a punt. He recovered it in the end zone to put his team ahead 14-0 with 9:33 to play in the first.
“If you’re punting the football, you better find out where he’s at,” Grass said of the 6-foot-2 Williams, who has made a penchant for producing in the third phase of the game throughout his career.
He blocked a punt and recovered at the 1-yard line to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the Yellow Jackets (9-1) season-opening win at home against Carrollton (Ga.)
“You better get a good snap and a good kick away because he’s got a chance to block it,” Grass added. “You can teach some kids how to block a punt. He’s one of those kids that has a special knack for blocking a punt and everybody can’t do that.”
Oxford won the Class 6A, Region 7 title Wednesday when an AHSAA ruling forced top-ranked Clay-Chalkville to forfeit all nine of its victories, including a 30-21 win against Oxford in Week 3. The Cougars’ appeal to Central board was denied Friday morning, solidifying the title for Oxford.
Oxford will host Spain Park, the fourth-place finisher in Region 6 and coincidentally the same school Grass led to a state championship game appearance three years ago before coming to Oxford, in the first-round of the playoffs next week.
“Region champs or coming in second place doesn’t really matter,” Stephens said. “We’re still going to prepare like we were the fourth-seed in our region. We’re just going to be ready to play.”
Once the Red Devils (8-2) settled down in the first half, they battled back on three touchdown runs of 1, 4 and 1 yards from senior quarterback Jonathan Wallace, a Southern Miss. commit, to tie the game at 21 with 3:59 before the half.
However, Oxford scored with eight seconds to play in the second on a 2-yard run from Coty Spurling to take a seven-point lead in the half.
Phenix City tied the game at 28 on a 3-yard run from Jerald Walker with 8:36 left in the third but another blocked punt, recovered in the end zone by Oxford’s Jacob Ritten gave the Yellow Jackets a 35-28 advantage. That play was preceded by a fortunate, for the Yellow Jackets, inadvertent whistle call which nullified a fumble recovery for the Red Devils on a botched catch on a punt return by Oxford.
Oxford went up 14 on a 24-yard pass from quarterback Jackson Stephens to Spurling with 1:45 left in the third.
“We started to try to run the clock after that and run the 25-second clock down, run the football and get out of the game,” Grass said.
Thomas, who rushed for 96 yards and touchdown on six carries, led Oxford.
The sophomore also had had three catches for 45 yards and a score. Stephens completed nine of 16 attempts for 141 yards and a pair of scores.
Wallace completed 17 of 29 passing attempts for 112 yards and an interception. He also carried the ball 15 times for 58 yards and three scores. Deontavius Hall was his top target with eight catches for 45 yards.
Thomas didn’t play after going down with a sprained shoulder with less than four minutes to play in the second and star defensive back Trae Elston didn’t play in the second half. Grass said Elston’s been battling a torn meniscus since early the season but has played through it. Both will be in action next Friday, Grass said.
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.