If there was any doubt the Oak Grove football team wouldn't bounce back in a positive way Friday night against Class 4 third-ranked Harrisonville, a week after its first loss of the season, the Panthers needed just one play to erase those doubts.
After a false start penalty to start the game, quarterback Austin Blackston found running back Aaron Graham on a well-executed play-action pass for an 85-yard touchdown on the first official play from scrimmage, as it propelled the Panthers to a 40-21 win.
“That was planned. We knew they were going to pack the box,” Graham said. “I told Austin that if anything, just launch it and I'll go get it.”
This game was a stark contrast from a week before, as Oak Grove dominated on both sides of the ball.
“We made plays,” Panther head coach Pat Richard said. “A week ago we had drops and missed tackles, and tonight we caught the ball and made tackles. … I don't know if we needed a wake up call but we were more focused this week.”
The opening touchdown, while it didn't lead the Panthers to throw the ball much more, kept Harrisonville on its toes just enough to keep them guessing at times, which Oak Grove took advantage of.
Another play-action pass in the first quarter on fourth-and-10 went for a 30-yard touchdown to Tanner Kanak to make it 13-7. Blackston and Kanak also hooked up for a 22-yard gain, while the play action led to a defensive pass interference call on a drive before halftime.
That drive ended with a 9-yard touchdown run by Graham and a 19-13 Panther lead.
“That opened up everything,” Graham said of the initial touchdown pass to start the game. “When we went to our Ace formation they started to back up.”
“And then it starts to open the run game back up,” Richard said.
Which is what happened in the second half, as Oak Grove just wore down the Wildcat defense. Ethan Fugitt had two touchdown runs and Blackston added another in the second half.
“Our men did what they do,” Fugitt said of the offensive line. “They made some big holes for us.”
The Wildcat defense was on the field for a lot of the game because the offense couldn't stay on it.
After driving for a touchdown in their opening drive to tie the game at 7-all and notching three first downs, the Wildcats not only accumulated just five first downs the remainder of the game, but also lost top running back Mason Saffels to an injury.
“When your star running back goes out with an injury that puts a damper on your game plan,” Harrisonville head coach Chuck Lliteras said. “It slowed us down. We had to put in some young guys back there. And we couldn't get them off the field.”
While Richard and Fugitt both admitted Saffels going down was a huge turn of events, it didn't mean the Panther defense was out of the woods. They were able to slow down the remaining Harrisonville offensive weapons in an impressive performance.
“We did our assignments. All 11 guys did their job,” Fugitt said of the defense. “We knew our offense would score, so if we could get stops on defense we would win the game.”
And this week, they were able to get off the field in third-down situations.
“Last week against Pleasant Hill they got a lot of third-down conversions,” Richard said. “That was a huge emphasis this week. We had to get off the field.”
Now, Harrisonville will try and do what Oak Grove did this past week and recover from a tough loss, as they fell to 5-2 on the season.
“We've got to regroup. This is just one week, just one game,” Lliteras said.
Oak Grove, now 6-1, appears to be rejuvenated. Sometimes a loss can do that for a team.
“That loss fueled our fire for this game and the rest of the season,” Fugitt said. “That was a tremendous learning point for us.”