That’s known around the game of football. Oxford (6-2, 4-2) fits the script, needing a win on Friday night against Pell City to make the playoffs. If the Yellow Jackets lose, they’ll need some help to make the postseason.
Oxford’s big player is Racean Thomas, who has made big plays all season, but has been sitting out most of the second half of the Yellow Jackets’ last four games, which were unofficially over by halftime.
But if Thomas wants to be the big player making big games, he’ll have to do it against the Panthers, who have allowed an average of 26 points per game this season. Other than two games, coach David Shores’ team has not allowed more than 28 points, but he said he hasn’t seen a running back like Thomas in a “long, long time.”
“I think going into it you have to understand from a coach’s perspective that he’s going to get his yards and his points,” Shores said. “He’s just one of those kids that you try to contain and, of course, we want to stop him, but when a Clay-Chalkville and those kind of folks can’t do it, it’s tough.
“It’s a huge task, challenge for us to have at the end of the year. They’re deserving of a top-10 ranking. We’ll have to play a flawless ballgame for us to really have a chance to win.”
Oxford coach John Grass said Pell City (5-3, 5-1) moves around often and playing sound defense, but Shores said his team will need to get as many players between Thomas and the end zone if they’re going to slow him down.
“He’s so much stronger this year than he was last year and he’s kind of become a punishing running back to where last year, as a sophomore, he was a little more timid and had the same ability and skill, but not the same kind of strength,” Shores added. “I’ve seen him break it seems like 1,000 tackles this year. He’s running sort of like a man possessed this year.”
However, Grass is just as worried about what Pell City’s offense is capable of as Shores is with Oxford.
“They’re a balanced attack so they’re hard to defend and you have to give up numbers in the box to be able to stop them from running the football, but you have to cover the whole field for their pass game,” Grass said. “They put you in a bind.”
Panthers quarterback Austin Martin, who has been the starter since he was a freshman, has not thrown an interception this season, according to Shores, and keeps the Panthers in games by rarely making mistakes.
In tight contests late in the game, Shores said that’s when tailback DeMauian Willis uses good balance and great vision to take advantage of opposing defenses.
“I think our team is in shape conditioning wise, so once teams start getting tired in the second half, third quarter, DaMuarian has been able to get in the middle of defenses,” Shores said. “At 244 pounds, he’s pretty tough to bring down when your legs get tired.”
With Thomas resting most of the second half while Oxford has won its last five games by an average of 31.60 points, Grass showed concern in how his starters would respond to what he predicts will be a four-quarter battle, but remained confident that the Yellow Jackets would play as they need to.
“Our kids know what’s at stake and what’s on the line and I think we’ll be ready to play,” he said. “We should have a great week of practice and preparation. But I know Pell City, too, and their kids will be ready and coach Shores will have them pumped up and we’re just going to have to be ready to play.”
Pell City, on the other hand, has plenty of experience in tight games this year with six of its games this season being decided by seven points or less.
“We’re not really good enough to beat teams outright,” Shores said. “We have to really work at it. We’re trying to tell our kids this week we have to play until the fourth quarter. Keep it close and hopefully have a chance in the fourth quarter against a very, very good football team. We have to create some good things out there to have a chance and help things go our way.”
To add another challenge for the Yellow Jackets with their playoff hopes on the line, they will face the Panthers on the road for the second year in a row.
“It’s big playing away,” Grass said. “I wish the game was in Oxford. We’re having to go down there for the second year in a row due to region draw outs. That’s OK, though. They’ll have a great crowd and we should bring a great crowd. It should be a very good environment for a high school football game on Friday night.”
The series has not had the same host team two years in a row since Oxford was at home in 2003-04. The Yellow Jackets take a six-game winning streak over Pell City into Friday night’s game, also having won 14 of the last 17 meetings. The Panthers, who have clinched a playoff spot, cannot drop lower than the third seed with a loss and will remain the second seed with a win.
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.