It’s one of the biggest cliches in sports: the tale of two halves.
But Friday’s double-overtime showdown between Oneida and Gatlinburg-Pittman was exactly that, as the Indians rallied from a 14-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Highlanders, scoring a 23-20, walk-off win when Evan Roberts strolled into the end zone from seven yards out in the second overtime.
For as bad as the two-touchdown halftime deficit was, it could have been even worse. Gatlinburg had a defensive touchdown wiped off the board due to a penalty. Oneida, meanwhile, could not find a way to move the football. The Highlanders did to the Indians what the Indians had done to Claiborne a week earlier, limiting them to just 19 yards of total offense in the first 24 minutes.
But then came the second half, and everything was different. It was Oneida that clamped down on defense in the game’s final 24 minutes, allowing just 34 yards of offense to the Highlanders, who were unable to move the ball across midfield in the third and fourth quarters.
Oneida’s offense, meanwhile, was virtually unstoppable, totaling 260 second half yards in the comeback effort.
“Coach (Jimmy) May and Coach (Billy) Barnhart and those offensive guys did a good job making the changes we felt like we needed to make,” Oneida Coach Tony Lambert said of the halftime adjustments that flipped the script. “We just challenged them to the fact that, hey, if you want to dance, let’s go out there and dance. Let’s make it a danged fist-fight in a phone booth.
“We needed to bring our physicality up because they were bringing it and we weren’t.”
While Oneida’s offense needed a half to find its rhythm, the Indians’ defense played better than the first half score indicated. The Highlanders broke two long plays in the first half — scoring on a 77-yard run by Collin Garza in the first quarter, then on an 81-yard pas s from JD Shults to Andrew Gentry in the second quarter. The second scoring play appeared to be stopped behind the line of scrimmage, but Gentry slipped a tackle and raced untouched for the touchdown.
Aside from those two plays, Gatlinburg had just 30 yards of offense in the first half.
The Indians began the second half with a punt, but the momentum flipped when Johnny Manis turned in a big play on special teams. Toby Hacker popped the returner to force a fumble, which Manis pounced on to give Oneida possession at Gatlinburg’s 25-yard-line.
On the next play, Roberts — who finished with 154 yards on 15 carries — found a crease off of left tackle and galloped in for a score.
Oneida continued to move the ball but found itself unable to finish drives until midway through the fourth quarter. The Indians began to steadily move the ball towards the Gatlinburg end zone, finally scoring on a Manis run from five yards out on third down to tie the game with five minutes remaining.
Gatlinburg was still unable to move the football, giving Oneida a chance to win it in regulation when the Indians continued to rip off long gains. Moving from its own 30-yard-line to the Gatlinburg red zone in just two minutes, Oneida set up the ball from the three-yard-line, giving Rhemci Chitwood an opportunity to win it with no time left on the clock.
But a bad snap foiled the kick, sending the game to overtime.
Oneida appeared to score on the first play of the overtime period, but a holding penalty negated Roberts’ run, and the Indians — perhaps fearing the leg of Gatlinburg’s Joey Renfroe — opted for another field goal attempt. Chitwood made it with plenty of leg to spare from 24 yards out, giving his team a 17-14 lead.
“Rhemci had a chance to redeem himself and he made that kick,” Lambert said. “We should’ve won the game in regulation, but we had a bad snap. We’ve got a veteran snapper and he just snapped it low, but he’ll get better of of it.”
Gatlinburg was not finished. The Highlanders fell short on their opportunity to win it, but forced a second overtime with a 24-yard field goal by Renfroe.
In the second overtime, Gatlinburg continued to find the going difficult against Oneida’s defense, and was ultimately forced to settle for a 40-yard field goal by Renfroe.
That set up Oneida with a chance to finally end it with a touchdown, and Roberts did just that on second down, again breaking off left tackle and covering seven yards for the score.
“What resiliency these guys showed,” Lambert said. “We don’t want to get beat in the fourth quarter. We want the fourth quarter to be ours, and if we get to overtime, we want to own it. I’m just thankful for the effort we got tonight.”