Three or four plays.
That was the general consensus following Friday’s game at Jim May Stadium, where Meigs County wrapped up the Region 2-2A championship with a 28-6 win over Oneida: three or four plays stood between the Indians and an upset of the state’s top-ranked team in Class 2A.
That handful of plays did not turn out in Oneida’s favor. The Tigers scored on a 58-yard run on fourth down, completed a 35-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-23 play that saw an apparent holding violation missed by the officials, and returned an interception 46 yards to set up a third score just before the end of the first half.
The culmination of those three plays resulted in a 21-0 halftime advantage for Meigs County, despite what Oneida coaches saw as one of their team’s best efforts of the season.
“I thought we played our guts out,” Indians head coach Tony Lambert said. “I told them this week I wanted to take the wide receivers out of the game and play smash-mouth football. That was the one chance we had to win. I thought we did a good job of that.”
Meigs County saw itself shut out of the end zone for much of the second half. At one point in the fourth quarter, Oneida had scored to cut the lead to 21-6, had gotten a defensive stop, and had the ball in the hands of its offense with a chance to make the game interesting.
But the three-touchdown halftime deficit proved too much for the Indians to overcome against the top-ranked Tigers.
If Lambert had a concern after the game, it was the way Meigs County drove the field with ease for its final touchdown, which came in the game’s waning minutes.
“They earned it, but I thought we laid down,” he said. “That was the only time I had a sinking spell. It just kinda bothered me. But I’m proud of our kids.”
Friday’s game marked just the second time this season that Oneida did not complete a pass. Instead, the Indians stuck primarily to their ground game, using a grind-it-out, slow-it-down approach. In the process, Oneida ran the ball as well as anyone has against Meigs County this season, racking up 187 yards against one of Class 2A’s best defenses. Sophomore Bryson Buttram finished with a career-high 96 yards to lead the Indians’ ground game.
“I was really proud of our guys, the way we played,” Lambert said. “If that’s the style we’ve gotta play, I told ‘em before the season that if this team was going to win anything, it would have to be with toughness. If we’ve gotta let the air out of it and slow it down, that might be what we do.”
Meigs County scored on its first offensive possession, with sophomore quarterback Aaron Swafford — who racked up 139 of his team’s 202 rushing yards — breaking free on a fourth down play from his own 42-yard-line.
Oneida was able to get into Meigs County territory on its first two drives of the game, but turned the ball over twice on fumbles. The Indians had four turnovers on the night, with Tiger linebacker Jawan Martin serving as a one-man wrecking crew. Martin, a highly-touted transfer from Rhea County, finished with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception, to go along with a team-high 13 tackles.
“That big linebacker is all he’s cracked up to be,” Lambert said of Martin. “He’s probably as good a linebacker as I’ve seen in high school football in a long, long time.”
Meigs County was able to turn the second fumble into a 35-yard touchdown pass and a 13-0 lead, after Colby Boyatt blocked the extra point attempt. The touchdown came on a third-and-23 play.
That appeared to be the way things would stand at halftime, after yet another Oneida fumble in Meigs County territory and a defensive stop by the Indians. But with 17 seconds remaining in the first half and the Tigers out of time outs, the Indians elected to attempt a fourth-down conversion at Meigs County’s 39-yard-line. Martin stepped in front of a pass and returned it to Oneida’s 27-yard-line, setting up a touchdown pass on the next play.
“That was my fault. That was on the coaches,” Lambert said of the decision to go for it on fourth down. “We probably should’ve went in with a 13-0 deficit.”
The third quarter was a defensive stalemate, before Oneida scored in the fourth quarter on a two-yard run by Evan Roberts.
The Indians then forced Meigs County into a three-and-out, with Tucker Manis and Ben Lambert coming up with a critical third down stop. But Oneida’s attempt to get back into the game ended with a three-and-out of its own, and Meigs County swiftly marched the length of the field to score with 1:30 remaining, putting the game out of reach.