Oak Grove senior lineman Skyler Hulse said energy was the key for the Panther defense heading into Monday’s Class 3 District 7 championship game, a battle of unbeatens with visiting Hogan Prep.
Even as a two-way starter, Hulse certainly wasn’t lacking that ingredient after fourth-ranked Oak Grove throttled the ninth-ranked Rams 42-0 on a cold-and-turning-colder evening. Realizing he might be talking too fast for note-scribbling purposes, he apologized.
“Energy, not letting the cold affect us,” Hulse said. “We knew it would affect them, getting off the hot bus. We had to be tough.”
The Panthers (12-0) limited the Rams (11-0) to just 74 yards on 29 plays from scrimmage – 57 of them on one snap – and earned a state quarterfinal home date Saturday afternoon with top-ranked Maryville.
“They played lights-out,” Oak Grove coach Pat Richard said of his defense. “The way they played, I think a lot of it was we went out against the wind, pounded the ball at them.”
Facing a nasty wind from the north on its first possession, Oak Grove shoved past a Hogan Prep defense that had yielded just 57 points all season, going 68 yards on 10 rushing plays with aid of a couple Ram offsides penalties. Aaron Graham carried six times for 44 yards on the trek, and Ethan Fugitt cover the final 4 yards. Scott Jones booted the first of his six PAT kicks at the 6:25 mark.
Hulse echoed his coach’s belief that the early score set a tone for the defense.
“Nothing gets much better than hitting someone in the face, going down and scoring on them and then going right back out and hitting them again,” Hulse said. “There’s a few of us that play on both sides, and we love this weather.”
The Panthers promptly forced the first of five straight three-and-outs (another possession lasted three plays before halftime).
Hogan Prep was playing without a handful of suspended starters, including its fullback and a couple lineman, but Rams coach Phil Lascuola didn’t appear too convinced they would have made much difference.
“We can’t use that as an excuse,” Lascuola said. “Even at full strength, Oak Grove’s a heck of a team. I’ll be rooting for them to go the whole way, and I think they can.”
“You’ve got to overcome that in an 11-, 12-game season,” he said of the suspensions, one of which included his long-snapper.
As a result, the Rams punted after pitch-backs from the quarterback. Horace McCallester’s first boot with the wind at his back bounced, rolled and was blown for 52 yards. But the Panthers burned the rest of the first quarter, the last play being Kyle Martin’s 11-yard rugby-style punt into the wind.
Page 2 of 2 - The second quarter was Hogan Prep’s turn to face the wind, and some fumbles hampered its offensive causes in addition to negative rushing plays. McCallester punted for 10, 7 and 11 yards to give Oak Grove possession at Hogan Prep’s 45, 22 and 31 on consecutive possessions.
The Panthers converted each into touchdowns. Austin Blackston faked a pitch to Graham (19 carries, 101 yards) and found Tanner Kanak wide open for a 45-yard pass. Then the quarterback kept 11 yards around the left side, following a crushing block from Dalton Brinegar. Finally, Kanak extended to the max to snare Blackston’s 22-yard rope for a 28-0 halftime lead.
McCallester managed a 25-yard punt into the wind in the third quarter, but Oak Grove still had just 47 yards to cover, and on the third play Fugitt (10 carries, 66 yards) bolted up the middle for a 35-yard touchdown.
“The wind took away their passing game,” Richard said of the Rams, who attempted just one incomplete pass, “and it seemed that whole quarter they were bottled up down there.
“(The defense) pursued well and made plays. They have some explosive players. Physically, they’re an impressive team, and Phil does such a great job with them.”
Hogan Prep’s only first down came when Martinez Lewis rumbled 57 yards to the Oak Grove 29. But on the next play Fugitt filled from his linebacker slot and crunched Chriselle Lang, who fumbled the ball right to Fugitt.
Blackston promptly hooked up with Graham on a 61-yard catch-and-run, setting up Martin’s 3-yard plunge for the game’s final score with 3:12 left in the third.
“Austin had a monster night throwing the ball,” Richard said. “We needed to work on that.”
“When we thought we had them stopped, they hit a couple passes and we blew some coverages,” Lascuola said. “They can do it all; they’ve got the whole package.”
Fugitt had four stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, and Hulse, Tandy Hall and Brinegar also had stops for no yardage. Brinegar also recovered a fumble.
“All 11 hats to the ball,” Fugitt said. “We knew they had some speed and we had to pursue.”
The Panthers had plenty of energy for that.