GREENBACK — There were 94 plays in Friday’s game here.

Three of them determined the outcome, as Greenback defeated Oneida, 20-7.

Two of those three plays involved the Cherokees biggest playmaker on offense, Holden Willis. The speedy and lanky wideout caught just four balls, but they were four big ones, as he totaled 201 yards, including touchdowns of 73 and 48 yards.

The other involved the Cherokees’ stingy defense, which limited the Indians to a season-low 180 yards and put the clamps on Oneida’s powerful rushing attack.

Greenback (2-2), the state’s sixth-ranked team in Class 1A, scored on a 73-yard touchdown pass from Braden Carnes to Willis in the first quarter. Then the Cherokees looked like they might be on the verge of blowing the game wide open in the second quarter, turning a sack-fumble into a scoop-and-score to widen their lead to 14-0.

But Oneida’s defense had something to say about that, playing well enough to keep the Indians (3-1) in the game. In fact, after Willis scored on the long play in the first quarter, the Cherokees’ offense didn’t find the end zone again until late in the fourth quarter.

Oneida’s Joseph Luckado separates Greenback quarterback Braden Carnes from the ball with a jarring blast in the second quarter of the Indians’ game against the Cherokees on Friday, September 13, 2019 | Sarah Dunlap/IH

That late score was a back-breaker, though. Oneida had just scored on a slow-and-steady 91-yard drive to cut the deficit to 14-7 when Willis turned a simple, 15-yard out pattern into a 48-yard touchdown after breaking two tackles along the sideline.

“Holden Willis is about as special a receiver as I’ve gone against,” Oneida coach Tony Lambert said. “He’s got length, he’s strong, he’s got a great sensor and ball skills. I thought Aaron Bowling did a great job on him tonight, (but) I can see why he’s a D-1 prospect.” 

Even though he had both of his team’s offensive scores, Willis’s biggest gain wasn’t a touchdown. He caught a 75-yard pass in the third quarter, when he slipped by Oneida’s secondary and appeared to be headed for the end zone. But in a bizarre turn, he dropped the football as he raced down the sideline. It bounced out of bounds, but the Indians’ defense bowed its backs, and Greenback ultimately was forced to settle for a field goal attempt that failed. That led to Oneida’s 91-yard touchdown drive to make the game close in the fourth quarter.

Greenback had more success running the football than any team has had against the Indians this season, racking up 137 yards and averaging six yards per carry. But take away Willis’s 201 receiving yards, and the Cherokees finished with just 155 yards of offense. The Indians’ defense got pressure on quarterback Braden Carnes, especially early. While the Greenback quarterback was able to make some plays with his legs, rushing for 53 yards on six carries to lead his team in that category, the Indians were able to make things happen with their pass rush — including a sack-fumble in the second quarter that saw Joseph Luckadoo rock Carnes from the blindside. Caden Litton recovered the loose ball.

“We gotta learn to come out of the gates a little better,” Lambert said. “We don’t need to be intimidated when we play the big guys. We didn’t have a lot of swag when it was time to go. We’ve got a lot of guys that haven’t played a lot of ball and this was a big stage for them, when you’re going against Division I (college prospects).”

A lightning delay stopped the game just after Luckadoo’s big hit to force the turnover and give the Indians the ball at midfield. When play resumed, it didn’t take Greenback long to score with its defense, completely flipping momentum.

That’s where things stood until the end of the third quarter, when Oneida began a 91-yard march that mixed Kolby Morgan and Bryson Buttram. Going against a defensive line that included a Virginia Tech commitment and another Division I prospect who has received interest from Oklahoma, the Indians’ offensive line finally began to open some running lanes. Morgan ultimately scored on a fourth down play after Elijah West and Trace Sexton hooked up through the air to convert another fourth down deep in Greenback territory.

“To start that fourth quarter, I thought we was really digging in and trying to win the football game,” Lambert said. “I was proud of them.”

Despite the loss, Lambert said his team can use the game as a learning tool.

“I hope our pride is skint,” Lambert said when asked if his team suffered any injuries. “That’s what I told ‘em. I know mine is. I hope our pride is bleeding for a few days. Because you can learn from that. If we really want to play with the big boys, we’re still going to get some chances. We’ve got to get better in certain areas, and  think our guys will answer that.”