Note: This story was updated at 1:55 a.m
ATHENS—When the Oak Ridge Wildcats traveled to Athens on Friday night to face McMinn County, despite the Cherokees’ impressive 5-1 record, they probably were not expecting a loss.
But that’s exactly what happened, as the two teams swapped leads throughout the contest, and the Cherokees just barely escaped with the win, 28-24.
“They whipped us,” Oak Ridge head coach Joe Gaddis said. “To their credit, they whipped us. And I think they whipped us on both sides of the ball.”
McMinn County burned seven minutes and 20 seconds off the clock on their first offensive possession, with all but one of the plays designed runs, and concluded the drive with a Zane Byas touchdown carry to put the Cherokees ahead 7-0.
“We knew what kind of game it was going to be,” Gaddis said. “They run the ball, they run the clock…”
But it didn’t take too long for Oak Ridge (7-1, 4-0 Region 3-5A) to respond.
With 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter, Wildcat quarterback Johnny Stewart broke through the defense for a 49-yard run, ending at the Cherokee five yard line. Several plays later, Jordan Graham punched the ball in to the end zone from three yards out to tie the game at 7-7.
The Cherokees forced a Johnny Stewart fumble at the twenty yard line with just under three minutes to go in the first half, returning it for a touchdown, and notching a 14-7 McMinn County advantage.
A Carson McGhee field goal before halftime and a touchdown pass from Stewart to senior Clemson-commit Tee Higgins shortly after the half put the Wildcats up 17-14.
But the Cherokees (6-1, 3-0 Region 4-5A) were not through battling.
Xavier Abernathy rammed past the goal line with just under twenty seconds to go in the third quarter. Two more scores, one from each team, including a 56-yard touchdown reception by Higgins, had McMinn County ahead 28-24 with 5:33 remaining in regulation.
The Wildcats drove down the field as the final minutes of the game ticked away in a last effort to secure a lead, but Stewart would be hit behind the line of scrimmage on fourth down with 3:04 on the clock to instead secure the McMinn County victory.
“I’d say our opportunities on offense were limited because they had the ball so much,” Gaddis said. “I don’t know what the time of possession was, but I’m sure they won it overwhelmingly. But this is their formula to win. And it worked.”
But Gaddis felt that his team could learn from this game, in particular, to be more physical during play.
“If we play more physical, the positive will be down the road,” Gaddis said.
Johnny Stewart finished the game with 10 of 16 passing for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Tee Higgins caught eight of those passes for 140 yards and the two scores. Jordan Graham recorded 73 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
Defensively, Adarius Simpson and Caleb Jackson led the team with 14 tackles each.
The Wildcats don’t play this coming week. They finish the regular season in games at Knoxville Webb on Friday, October 21, and at Campbell County in a televised game at 7 p.m. Thursday, October 27.
Tyler Wombles is a freelance contributor to Oak Ridge Today.
See a video of a touchdown catch by senior Tee Higgins here, with video courtesy of Myles Hebrard:
— Myles Hebrard (@myleshebrard) October 8, 2016
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