In a span of less than two-and-a-half minutes Friday night, Oak Grove saw its 27-13 fourth-quarter lead over Excelsior Springs almost completely vanish. The momentum they had was gone and all of a sudden they were a two-point conversion away from trailing.
The Tigers had scored a quick touchdown, recovered a fumble, scored another touchdown, and with just 1:23 left and all the momentum on their side, head coach Mark Faubion decided to go for the lead, down 27-26.
Oak Grove’s Chase Alexander wasn’t about to give up that lead.
“I thought they were going to kick it,” Alexander said. “(On the play) one of their guys motioned out, so me and Nathan (White) did a last-second audible and I moved onto No. 6 and just deflected the ball.”
Tigers quarterback Peyton Soria looked for Dakota Rimmer on a quick out route but Alexander was able to get enough of the ball to knock it away to preserve the win.
“Credit them. They battled and battled. It was a dog fight,” Oak Grove head coach Pat Richard said of Excelsior Springs. “I’m proud we stayed composed and made the play that won the ball game.”
Afterward, Faubion said he felt the time and play were right to go for the lead.
“The momentum was there. We had them on their heels. You play to win on the road,” he said. “We’ve worked on that play for the last couple of weeks for that situation. It was four inches from being complete. We thought we had everything going for us.”
That hadn’t been the case just a few minutes earlier, after a bit of a messy sequence of possessions led to the Panthers appearing to take control.
The Panthers led 21-13 but had a drive stall in Tiger territory, as they were unable to convert on a fourth-and-6. Excelsior Springs got the ball back and three plays later Oak Grove’s Garrison Walton hauled in an interception. On the very next play, Panther quarterback Jaxon Althaus fumbled it back to the Tigers. Then, on the next play, the Panther defense got another interception, this one from Alexander.
The string of turnovers finally ended and Oak Grove capitalized. Facing a third-and-8 on the Tiger 29, Althaus rolled out to the right looking to run, realized nothing was there and heaved the ball high in the air under heavy pressure. Alexander would settle under it and make a contested catch in the end zone for a 27-13 lead.
“Chase is a great athlete,” Althaus said. “I thought I was going to run and at the last minute we did an audible. I realized I wasn’t going to get anything running the ball, and I figured if Chase wasn’t going to get it nobody was going to get it.”
Added Alexander, “I got by my guy and was open, but I saw Jaxson didn’t have much time to throw it. He just threw it up there and I caught it. I had to make a bit of an acrobatic catch.”
Alexander made a big play on offense but it was him and the rest of the defensive unit that was a big reason the Panthers were able to get that two-score lead.
After the Tigers scored first to go up 7-0 in the second quarter on a drive that took just a shade more than 7 minutes, the Panther defense allowed only three first downs on the next eight possessions before giving up those two late scores.
“They did a great job adjusting and making plays,” Richard said of the defense. “He’s (Soria) a good athlete. We did a good job containing him.”
Faubion agreed and said his team’s inability to move the ball on the ground hurt them.
“They did a great job of being prepared for our option,” he said. “Their edge guys made it tough for us to do what we wanted to do. Peyton, it’s just his sixth game, so he learned from it. We’ll do some growing from this.”
The Panther offense took advantage of some short fields, scoring on two 35-yard drives thanks to runs from Althaus (6 yards) and Tyler Hunter (25 yards) in the first half. Althaus found Drake Brady for a 10-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the second half to make it 21-7.
The Tigers would eventually cut it to 21-13 on a Soria 1-yard rush.
Excelsior Springs fell to 5-2 with the loss and will travel to Grain Valley next week, while Oak Grove improved to 4-3 and will hit the road to face Harrisonville.