Make no mistake, even with a brief rally in the third quarter by visiting Grain Valley, Oak Grove’s 49-22 victory Friday was every bit as convincing as the score indicated.
But while the Class 3 fifth-ranked Panthers improved to 7-1 overall and 3-1 in the Missouri River Valley Conference West, Oak Grove coach Pat Richard can pinpoint some improvements needed before next week’s regular season finale at Excelsior Springs, with a share of the conference title and a top seed for the playoffs still a possibility.
Before the cold rain stopped after halftime, the Panthers fumbled away two of their first three possessions, and had another in second quarter that started at Grain Valley’s 38 but ended on downs.
Regardless, Grain Valley (3-5, 0-4) couldn’t mount much resistance to the Oak Grove rushing attack, which ground out 411 yards on 64 attempts.
“We’ve got some work to do this week,” Richard said. “We’ve got to do a better job finishing when we have the opportunity.
“We can’t turn the ball over in the rain. we get in the playoffs we’ll get some bad weather, and we can’t fumble it.”
Aaron Graham was the rushing ringleader with 203 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries for Oak Grove, while fellow halfback Ethan Fugitt rumbled for 121 yards on 19 tries and fullback Tyler Brown added 54 yards on 12 totes, each scoring a TD.
Quarterback Austin Blackston didn’t attempt a second-half pass and completed just 3 of 11, but that included a 64-yard scoring connection with tight end Tanner Kanak.
“Our offense has been rolling,” Fugitt said. “The rain kind of kept us from passing or running outside (pitch sweeps) much.
“We just need to focus. It’s playoff weather, and we’ve got to get ready for it. In the playoffs, whoever turns the ball over less wins the game, and we want to be that team.”
Grain Valley’s Brenton Leighow fell on fumble near midfield to end Oak Grove’s first possession. But four incompletions handed the ball back to the Panthers, who moved 60 yards in 10 plays, the last one a 15-yard run by Fugitt. Scott Jones added the first of his seven PAT kicks for a 7-0 lead at the 2:59 mark.
Two possessions later, Blackston hit a streaking Kanak down the middle off play-action for a 14-0 lead with 8:36 left in the second quarter. A short punt gave the Panthers possession at the Eagle 38, and on the second play Graham burst untouched up the middle for a 25-yard score, giving the Panthers their halftime lead of 21-0.
Meanwhile, Grain Valley’s passing game didn’t take too kindly to the rain, and protection issues caused Jimmy Tucker to replace sophomore starter Kellen Holland with senior Ben Andes. Holland was just 6-of-17 passing in the first half, came back in during the fourth quarter and finished 10 of 22 for 77 yards. Andes was 6-of-17 passing for 92 yards.
The Eagles had just 42 of their 211 total yards in the first half. Oak Grove end Tandy Hall had three stops behind the line of scrimmage, while tackle Dalton Brinegar and Fugitt at linebacker also stops for negative plays.
“They’re big and physical,” Tucker said of the Panthers, “and we’re not very big and physical, and the rain really hurt us. It’s not an excuse, but you could tell in the second half – the rain stopped and we moved the ball better.
“We weren’t blocking very well, and I needed a mobile quarterback in there. I told (Holland) before, we knew we might have trouble protecting and could make that change.”
The Eagles opened the second half with a surprise rugby scrum onside kick which they recovered at Oak Grove’s 35, and on the first snap Andes hit Evan Velasquez (7 catches, 60 yards) down the left side line for a touchdown.
A second onside kick proved unsuccessful, and Graham made the Eagles pay five plays later by powering 7 yards for a score.
But Blake Lacey returned the ensuing kickoff 45 yards to the Panther 44, and Andes found Brice Quinn for 29 yards and Hunter Ramirez (5 catches, 52 yards) for a 13-yard score. Ramirez fumbled the PAT snap, and his rushing attempt appeared stopped before he pitched back to kicker Velasquez, resulting in a 2-point conversion and a 28-15 margin with 9:20 left in the third.
Oak Grove didn’t blink and put the game away by scoring on its next three possessions. Brown’s 2-yard plunge capped an 11-play, 54-yard drive after another onside kick, and Blackston (3-yard keeper) and Graham again (6 yards) also crossed the goal line.
Holland completed the scoring with 22 seconds left on a 2-yard run.
“You can get into a dogfight, or you can put your foot down and score,” Richard said of Grain Valley’s rally. “We kept pounding and pounding. I’m happy with how we got off the ball the second half.”