SPEEDWELL, Tenn. — Judging from the reaction of head coach Tony Lambert, you might not have guessed that Oneida had just closed out the first half of its season with an undefeated record here Friday night.
“It’s good to be 5-0; it’s good to be 2-0 in the region. It’s good to be in the playoffs,” Lambert said after his team’s 34-20 win over Cumberland Gap, which clinched a postseason bid for the Indians. But his tone suggested there was a “but” coming.
“But it seems like we’ve been on the decline the last couple of weeks,” Lambert said. “I don’t know if we’ve hit a spot of complacency (but) we’ve got to find a way to pick our game up a little bit.”
To earn its fifth win of the season, Oneida had to fend off an upset challenge for a second consecutive game. One week after needing a fourth quarter touchdown and a defensive stand deep in their own territory to hold off a major upset bid by Harriman, the Indians needed a late touchdown to put breathing room between themselves and Cumberland Gap in an even bigger upset bid.
“It starts with me, first and foremost,” an obviously frustrated Lambert said. “I thought we lost our edge a little bit tonight. For the first time, I thought we looked like we were tired and sluggish. That’s not very characteristic of our football team.”
One of the staples of Oneida’s unbeaten start to the season — defense — was not necessarily reliable in the second half of Friday’s game. The Indians had not given up a second half touchdown through the first four games of the season. After building a 27-7 lead Friday, the Indians saw Cumberland Gap score two of them. The Panthers finished with 267 yards — the most given up by Oneida this season — as they charged back to cut the deficit to 27-20 early in the fourth quarter.
“We just didn’t play well on defense,” Lambert said, faulting both shaky play in the secondary and the lack of the pass rush that has defined Oneida’s defense through the first half of the season.
But when Oneida needed it most, it turned to what it does best: running the football
After Cumberland Gap closed the deficit to 27-20 with 8:24 to play, the Indians turned in an 11-play, 73-yard drive that took 5:18 off the clock.
In fact, on a night when the Indians rolled up 333 rushing yards and averaged over seven yards per carry, Oneida had only two offensive possessions that did not end in scores. One was at the end of the first half, when a waning clock forced the Indians to attempt a 39-yard field goal. The other was in the fourth quarter, when a holding penalty left them behind the sticks.
For the most part, Oneida moved the ball at will against Cumberland Gap, with Evan Roberts rushing for 155 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries — averaging over 12 yards per carry.
It was obvious from the start that Oneida would have little trouble moving the football. The Indians drove the length of the field on their first possession, with Roberts scoring on an eight-yard run.
Minutes later, Toby Hacker forced a fumble that was recovered by Drew Crabtree. One play after that, Hacker found himself on the receiving end of a 29-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Elijah West, pushing the lead to 14-0.
Cumberland Gap was able to cut into the lead by using a series of pass completions to drive the field, the last of which was a 13-yard pass from Caden Brunsma to Brady Pearman, cutting the lead to 14-7.
But Oneida struck right back, with Bryson Buttram scoring on a five-yard run to push the lead to 21-7 at the half.
The Indians started the third quarter by picking up right where they left off in the first half, with Roberts scoring from 24 yards out to push the lead to 27-7.
But then Cumberland Gap started its comeback. Matt Muggridge scored from five yards out for Cumberland Gap’s second fourth down conversion of the drive, cutting the Indians’ lead to 27-14. After a holding penalty backed up Oneida and forced the Indians’ only punt of the night, Cumberland Gap wasted no time finding the end zone again, with Gage Ellison scoring on an 11-yard run.
Hacker scored his second touchdown of the game from a yard out to give Oneida a two-touchdown cushion with under four to play, 34-20.
Cumberland Gap’s last-gasp effort ended when Aaron Bowling broke up a fourth down pass to force a turnover on downs in the final minute.