In coaching, they sometimes say that an ugly win is better than a pretty loss.
Ugly may have been the most effective way to describe Oneida’s visit from Harriman on Friday, as the Indians’ run game bogged down against the Blue Devils’ stubborn defense. But, in the end, it ended the way everyone dressed in orange would have hoped — with another mark in the win column, as Oneida slugged its way to a 13-7 win.
Oneida (4-0) went two quarters without a first down, and didn’t pick up its third first down of the game until the final minute of the third quarter. Except for a 62-yard scoring play, the Indians had only 28 yards of total offense in the first half. And the Indians finished with a season-low 136 rushing yards, almost half — 58 yards — of which came on the game’s final possession.
That’s the way it went on a night when Harriman’s unexpectedly stingy defense clogged running lanes and made life difficult for Oneida’s running backs.
In fact, in what was a first for a Tony Lambert-coached team at Oneida, the Indians’ running game was shut out of the end zone; their only points came through the air, with sophomore quarterback Elijah West tossing touchdown passes of 62 yards and 41 yards.
“I just think (Harriman) came ready to play,” Lambert said. “I told Coach (Travis) Tapp after the game, you whipped us for a long time. My hat’s off to Harriman. But it says something about our kids. We’re 4-0 and we found a way to win.”
The game initially looked as though it might be a high-scoring affair. Oneida quickly found the end zone on a 62-yard scoring play. West found Will Barnhart on a tight end screen and the senior did the best, taking advantage of a key block by Logan Stephens to rumble 62 yards to the end zone.
Harriman wasted little time responding, with a 47-yard pass from Bradley Frost to Chris Worthy setting up a six-yard touchdown pass from Frost to Tezdin Copeland, tying the game late in the first quarter.
From there, though, both defenses took over. With the offenses occasionally committing untimely penalties — the two teams combined for 15 penalties that accumulated more than 120 yards in step-offs — the defenses cracked down.
The stalemate lasted until late in the first half, when Harriman appeared to break through with a 40-yard pass completion from Kylann Love to Landon Cox. That set the Blue Devils up with a first-and-goal at Oneida’s eight-yard-line. But the Indians did what they’ve been effective at doing all season: their defensive line got pressure on the quarterback. That resulted in a costly holding penalty and, finally, a fourth down interception that West made on the goal line to end the scoring threat.
The defensive stand on the goal line was important on a night when Oneida was having difficulty moving the football.
“I was proud of our kids,” Lambert said. “We could have laid down and quit but we kept coming back.”
Harriman’s defense continued to clamp down on Oneida as the second half began, and neither team was able to mount a serious scoring threat.
That finally changed as the third quarter wound down. Oneida converted a fourth down to earn its first first down since the first quarter, then converted a third down to pick up another first down before West went to the air again, finding Tucker Manis over the top for a 41-yard score. It was his second touchdown pass of the game.
“I’m proud of Elijah,” Lambert said of his sophomore quarterback. “Elijah has come a long way. He’s learning to play the position. He’s going to make some rookie mistakes, but he’s 4-0 as a starter and that’s really good. He threw some nice balls tonight. He threw some balls he’s gotta work on, too, and he knows that. He’s a competitor and he wants to be the quarterback here at Oneida.”
As was the case in the first quarter, though, it looked like Harriman was immediately going to answer Oneida’s touchdown with a score of its own. And that was especially critical because the Indians had mishandled the snap on their extra point attempt, meaning the Blue Devils could potentially win the game with a score.
Two critical penalties helped Harriman out on the final drive. The first, a 15-yard face mask call, was not questioned. But the second, a 15-yard pass interference penalty on what would have been fourth-and-long, left Oneida’s coaching staff livid. Matt Hood appeared to do a good job defending the ball but was flagged for a penalty.
As it turned out, the official who threw the flag was a former player of Lambert’s.
“He called it the way he saw it, but I told him, I know one thing: We’re going to coach it like that every time we play it,” Lambert said. “I’m proud of Matt Hood. I thought he made a great play there.”
The penalty helped Harriman move inside the 20-yard-line, where the Blue Devils appeared on the verge of what would have been the first second half score surrendered by the Indians all season. But the drive stalled, then ended when Stephens came up with his second sack of the night on fourth down.
With five minutes remaining on the clock, Oneida needed a couple of first downs to salt the game away. And the Indians’ running game finally kicked into gear. Twice on third down plays the Indians turned to Hood around the right side of the line, and they twice converted to run out the clock.
“I didn’t think we played with a lot of great energy in the first half,” Lambert said. “We played better in the second half, but we’ve still yet to put four quarters together and we’ve got to figure out how to do that.”
Still, Lambert said his team’s 4-0 start is not to be diminished.
“I growl and fuss at these boys but I tell them all the time, I’m proud that this is my football team. I don’t want any other team. I love them.”