Note: This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. Nov. 15.
OOLTEWAH—Oak Ridge gave up 17 points in the first quarter and lost its star playmaker in the second, but the Wildcats rallied to close the gap before falling short in a second-round Class 5A playoff game in Ooltewah on Friday.
The final score was 26-17 in favor of the Owls, who move on to play Rhea County in a Class 5A quarterfinal game next week.
A lot went wrong for Oak Ridge (10-2) in the first quarter at Ooltewah on Friday: an early fumble, a dropped end-zone pass, a missed field goal, and a turnover on a punt return. Ooltewah (10-2) breezed to a 17-0 lead in the first 11 minutes.
Then, Oak Ridge lost star playmaker Tee Higgins late in the second quarter to a knee injury on his right leg. Higgins, a junior standout receiver, defensive back, and punt returner who is a University of Tennessee commitment, did not return.
Lesser teams might have folded, Oak Ridge Coach Joe Gaddis told his team in a tearful post-game huddle. The Wildcats did not. They rallied from a 20-0 deficit and scored 17 unanswered points to narrow the gap to 20-17 late in the third quarter.
Oak Ridge missed an attempt to tie the game on a 47-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, and Ooltewah scored one more touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to increase its lead to 26-17.
A final push by the Wildcats ended with an interception at about the Owls 15 with roughly three minutes remaining.
Ooltewah ran out the clock after that.
“This is not what we came here to do,” Gaddis told the Wildcats. But down 20-0, they didn’t fold, he said.
“We pulled it together” and were in a position to win, but just didn’t get it done, Gaddis said.
Gaddis said Higgins, the team’s most dynamic playmaker, appeared to have a slightly dislocated kneecap and might have been able to play next week if the Wildcats had advanced.
Oak Ridge, which was already playing without senior wide receiver Darel Middleton, rallied even after Higgins was injured, Gaddis said.
“It says a lot for the heart of the team,” he said.
Ooltewah scored on its first nine-play drive with a 46-yard run by wide receiver Rashun Freeman up the left sideline and into the end zone at 8:48 in the first quarter.
The Wildcats had a quick turnover when senior Davon Middleton fumbled during a run on the second play of Oak Ridge’s first drive, and Ooltewah returned it to the Wildcats 10. The Owls scored four plays later on a 36-yard field goal by Aleksander Toser.
On its next 10-play drive, the Wildcats drove to the Ooltewah 27, but Middleton, who was ahead of his defender in the end zone, dropped a pass, and Oak Ridge kicker Brandon Nickle missed a 44-yard field goal. It appeared to go wide left.
Ooltewah punted on fourth down on its next drive, but the punt hit Oak Ridge senior Adam Manookian in the back, and the Owls recovered at their own 45. They scored five plays later on a 14-yard pass to Freeman, who was wide open on the left sideline. After the extra point, the score was 17-0 with 1:04 left in the first quarter.
The Owls scored again on a 28-yard field goal by Toser at 7:43 in the second quarter, widening their lead to 20-0.
The Wildcats scored their first touchdown at the end of a 78-yard, six-minute drive that ended with a one-yard run by senior quarterback Jordan Dunbar with 1:34 left in the half. That touchdown came after Higgins was injured at the right sideline while blocking on a run by senior T.J. Allison.
The Wildcats added three more points on a 28-yard field goal by Nickle with 3.8 seconds left in the half, and the score at halftime was 20-10 in favor of the Owls.
Dunbar scored again for Oak Ridge on another one-yard touchdown run at 2:33 in the third quarter, making it a game at 20-17. But it was the last time the Wildcats scored.
Oak Ridge senior Gavin Warrington intercepted the Owls on the third play of their next drive, but the Wildcats were unable to convert the turnover into a score when Nickle missed a field goal of about 47 yards.
Ooltewah got its final score at 7:04 in the fourth quarter when quarterback London Elrod connected with wide receiver Ethan Walls on a 20-yard pass in the right corner of the end zone.
The Wildcats drove downfield to the Owls 11 on their final drive, but Freeman, who was playing defense, intercepted Dunbar.
The Wildcats gained a few more total yards than the Owls, ending with 294 compared to 285. Oak Ridge also had 16 first downs, compared to 10 for Ooltewah.
The Owls were able to prevent speedy freshman running back Jordan Graham from picking up many big gains. His longest run, and the longest for any Wildcat, was 24 yards. Senior running back T.J. Allison led Oak Ridge with 94 yards on 20 carries.
Dunbar, who scored the two touchdowns for the Wildcats, was 9-of-21 passing (42.9 percent) for 119 yards and one interception.
Junior Caleb Jackson, one of three Wildcats asked to step up after Higgins was injured, led receivers with 56 yards on four catches.
In defensive highlights, Oak Ridge had an interception, a fumble recovery, and five blocked passes.
Elrod was 16-of-29 (55.2 percent) for 168 yards and one interception for Ooltewah. Freeman led the Owls with 70 yards on 11 runs and the two touchdowns.
Rhea County (9-3) beat Farragut (10-2), 40-34, in another Class 5A second-round game on Friday.
See photos from the Friday night game by Julio Culiat here.
See preliminary stats by Mark Haste here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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