Note: This story was last updated at 10:25 a.m.
Oak Ridge beat Soddy Daisy 45-33 on big plays and turnovers in the first round of the 2015 Class 5A football playoffs on Blankenship Field on Thursday.
The Wildcats (10-1) will travel to Ooltewah (9-2) on Friday, November 13, for a second round game. The Owls, who are ranked eighth, beat the Clinton Dragons (4-7) in another first-round game on Thursday to advance to play Oak Ridge.
The Wildcats, who are ranked third, had another big night on defense and special teams. Oak Ridge senior Davon Middleton intercepted one Trojans pass in the end zone to stop one Soddy Daisy drive deep in Wildcat territory, and he later deflected a third-down pass near the goal line to help end another.
Junior wide receiver Tee Higgins and freshman running back Jordan Graham also had big nights. They each had two touchdowns for Oak Ridge.
One of Graham’s touchdowns came on the opening kickoff of the second half. The small, speedy freshman broke tackles and curled from the left side of the field—after it looked like he had been stopped—to the right before racing 88 yards to score on a run that took 25 seconds to complete. Graham ended the night with the two touchdowns, including one on a 50-yard run, and 154 yards on eight carries.
Oak Ridge had a 38-7 lead with 4:23 remaining in the third quarter, but the Trojans, who had two fumbles in addition to the interception, didn’t quit, including after the Wildcats put in substitutes. Soddy Daisy (7-4), which had more total offense than Oak Ridge, scored four touchdowns in the last 4:39 of the fourth quarter while the Wildcats scored one. Senior wide receiver Tre Carter had two of those late touchdowns for the Trojans.
But it wasn’t enough. The Trojans had already had the three turnovers, with two in the red zone, Soddy Daisy Coach Justin Barnes said.
“You can’t turn it over to a team like that,” Barnes said, referring to the Wildcats, “and expect to stay in it.”
Oak Ridge scored quickly—it only took three plays—after Middleton picked off the pass from Soddy Daisy quarterback Justin Cooke to Carter early in the second quarter. That gave the Wildcats a 14-0 lead about halfway through the second quarter.
“That was a huge turnaround,” Oak Ridge Joe Gaddis said. The Wildcats never trailed.
At halftime, Oak Ridge talked about scoring on a kickoff return. They did, striking immediately in the second half, going up 28-7.
“That was one of the most phenomenal kickoff returns I’ve ever seen,” Gaddis said of Graham’s opening third-quarter touchdown run.
Graham, 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, was hit several times, and it appeared he had been wrapped up twice before he broke free, eluded defenders, and sped away from everyone and into the end zone.
“He’s got the speed, and he’s hard to handle,” Barnes said.
Neither team scored on their first possession on Thursday. Cooke fumbled on Soddy Daisy’s second drive, and junior linebacker Chase Kimbro recovered it for Oak Ridge at the Wildcats 36.
Oak Ridge drove 64 yards in eight plays and scored on a 36-yard throw from senior quarterback Jordan Dunbar to Higgins, giving the Wildcats a 7-0 lead at 4:51 in the first quarter.
Two possessions later, Soddy Daisy marched downfield on a 13-play drive that started at its own 34 and ended at the Oak Ridge 10.
But Middleton’s pick in the left side of the end zone killed that drive, and the Wildcats drove back downfield the other way in three plays: a 21-yard pass from Dunbar to Higgins, a 50-yard run by Graham, and an 11-yard run around the left end and into the end zone by Dunbar. The score was 14-0 with 6:15 left in the half.
“It got us going,” Middleton said of his interception.
Undeterred, the Trojans mounted another drive, this time moving 80 yards in 12 plays and scoring on a one-yard run by senior running back Christian Bell. That drive had been kept alive by a successful conversion on a fourth-and-13. The score was 14-7 at 2:03 in the half.
But the Wildcats answered before halftime. After Higgins returned the kickoff to the 50, Oak Ridge moved the ball with another reverse to Graham, who picked up 17 yards, and a 25-yard pass to senior Darel Middleton.
Higgins scored at the end of that drive, catching the ball on the left side of the field and then returning to the right before veering back left into the end zone as time wound down.
The score at halftime was 21-7.
In the second half, Soddy Daisy fumbled again three plays after Graham’s opening kickoff return for a touchdown. Oak Ridge recovered. After a series of penalties, senior Wildcat Brandon Nickle kicked a 44-yard field goal, giving Oak Ridge a 31-7 lead at 8:01 in the third quarter.
The Wildcats scored again on their next possession when senior running back T.J. Allison powered through defenders on a 22-yard run to give Oak Ridge a 38-7 lead at 4:23 in the third.
Soddy Daisy got a spark when senior defensive back Chase Payne intercepted Oak Ridge senior quarterback Logan Fadnek early in the fourth quarter. Payne returned the ball to the Wildcats 31. But Oak Ridge got a crucial fourth-down stop at its own two-yard line after the third-down deflection by Davon Middleton.
Then, on its next drive, Soddy Daisy came up with its biggest play of the night, a 91-yard pass play from Cooke to Carter on a second-and-nine at the Trojans 9. Carter was behind the defense, and he ran down the right sideline and into the end zone, narrowing the Oak Ridge lead to 38-14 with 4:39 remaining in the game.
Soddy Daisy recovered the ball at the Oak Ridge 47 on the ensuing kickoff and scored nine plays later on a three-yard pass to junior tight end Ty Boeck in the back left of the end zone. The Trojans were down by 17, 38-21, with 3:33 remaining, and they had shown they could score quickly.
Oak Ridge recovered the next short kickoff at midfield, and Graham scored on the first play, running 50 yards up the right side of the field with 3:20 remaining, answering the back-to-back touchdowns by Soddy Daisy, and widening the Wildcats’ lead to 45-21.
But Cooke again hit Carter with a long touchdown pass, this time a 49-yard play from near midfield. After the extra-point attempt failed, the score was 45-27 with 2:39 left.
Dunbar fumbled two plays later, and Boeck recovered the football at the Oak Ridge 34, giving the Trojans another opportunity.
Soddy Daisy converted. The Trojans scored three plays later when Cooke hit Boeck in stride on a 12-yard pass as he angled from left to right across the center of the field. The Trojans had narrowed the lead to 45-33 with 1:19 left.
But neither team scored again.
Gaddis said he was disappointed with the substitutes when they came in halfway through the fourth quarter, and he had to put the starters back in. They weren’t focused either, he said.
“We played three-and-a-half quarters of excellent football,” Gaddis said. Still, he said, “I’m not going to let a sloppy finish take away from a big win.”
Wildcats gave credit to the defense and turnovers, and Graham credited the team’s blocking.
“Turnovers was the big difference in this game for us,” Graham said.
“We had to stop their passing game, and we did that in the first half,” Higgins said. Cooke can scramble well, but the Wildcats were able to stop him in the second quarter, Higgins said.
Barnes said the Trojans are in the process of turning around their program. They were 2-8 three years ago, and in the three years he’s been coach, Soddy Daisy has improved from 3-7 to 4-7 to 7-4 last year.
The Wildcats have been to the playoffs seven consecutive times. Oak Ridge also eliminated Soddy Daisy in the first round of the playoffs in 2014.
Oak Ridge had 399 yards total offense (311 rushing, 88 passing) on Friday, and Soddy Daisy had 455 (141 rushing, 314 passing). The Wildcats gained 139 yards on kickoff returns, but were 4-of-12 passing (33.33 percent) for 88 yards, with one interception.
There were three Class 5A games on Thursday, including Oak Ridge-Soddy Daisy and Clinton-Ooltewah. In the third one, Rhea County (7-3) beat Campbell County (5-5), 35-0. The Golden Eagles will play next Friday (November 13) against the winner of the Farragut-Cleveland game this Friday (November 6). Farragut is 9-1, and Cleveland is 5-5.
Oak Ridge entered the playoffs as the number two seed in Region 3, and Ooltewah was the number one seed in Region 4. See the Class 5A football playoff bracket here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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