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CUMBERLAND GAP — The Panthers have not won a football game since October 19, 2018. 

Against Oneida on Friday, they were eager to show their intent to change that.

Cumberland Gap opened with an onside kick — which it recovered. Then, two plays later, the Panthers went over the top for a 33-yard touchdown from Caden Brunsma to Holden McDaniel, and led 7-0 just 26 seconds into the game.

But if the Indians were shell-shocked by Cumberland Gap’s explosive start, they didn’t show it. Oneida answered with its own touchdown two plays later — a 48-yard pass from Jakob Hamilton to Aaron Bowling — and went on to win the game, 44-14.

Despite its quick answer, heavily-favored Oneida (4-1, 2-0) struggled to put Cumberland Gap (0-4, 0-2) away. The Panthers trailed just 20-14 late in the first half and were driving, apparently on the verge of taking the lead before the half-time break. But the Panthers put the ball on the ground with an unforced fumble, Caden Litton recovered, and moments later Rhemci Chitwood banged home a 43-yard field goal as the first half clock expired. When the second half started with Kolby Morgan returning a punt 65 yards for a touchdown, the Indians had turned a 20-14 lead into a 30-14 lead, and never looked back.

When asked if Cumberland Gap caught his team by surprise, Oneida head coach Tony Lambert was blunt. “No. No, no surprise. You don’t get a pass on that,” Lambert said. “I told our team, this is exactly what was going to happen, if we weren’t ready to play. And this is what happened.”

Despite an uninspired start, Lambert said his team stepped up in the second half, when they out-scored the Panthers 21-0 to put the game away.

Hunter Barnhart hauls in a reception during Oneida’s 44-14 win at Cumberland Gap on Friday, September 20, 2019 | Sarah Dunlap/IH

“I’m going to give Gap credit, buddy,” Lambert said. “Their kids played extremely hard. But here’s what I’m going to tell you: In the second half, I thought my kids played extremely hard. And that’s what we needed to do.”

Oneida had a difficult time moving the ball on the ground, finishing with just 91 rushing yards as Cumberland Gap loaded the box — sometimes with as many as nine defenders — and dared the Indians to throw the ball.

The Indians, typically reluctant to throw, were happy to oblige. Quarterbacks Jakob Hamilton and Elijah West combined for a season-high 222 passing yards — Hamilton was 6 of 10 for 129 yards and a touchdown, while West was 3 of 4 for 93 yards — and that proved to be more than enough for Oneida to hold off the upset-minded Panthers.

The Indians’ defense, meanwhile, gave up 168 yards to Cumberland Gap, including the two first-half touchdowns, which did not make their head coach happy. It marked the first time in five games this season that Oneida gave up multiple offensive scores in the first half.

But there were some bright spots. Colby Boyatt had five sacks, and Hunter Barnhart finished with 11 tackles and an interception from his linebacker position. As a team, Oneida recorded eight quarterback sacks.

Morgan, who finished with three touchdowns, scored two rushing touchdowns in the first half — one from 24 yards out and one from nine yards out — to help Oneida build a 20-7 lead. 

But Cumberland Gap answered with a 10-yard run by Logan Miracle with 4:39 to play in the first half. After a quick stop, the Panthers had the ball back and were driving deep into Oneida territory before fumbling the ball away. 

Moments later, Bryson Buttram caught a pass off a tipped ball and rumbled 27 yards into Cumberland Gap territory. It would’ve been much longer if not for a block in the back penalty, one of 21 between the two teams in a flag-plagued game, but it was enough to set up a career-long 42-yard field goal by Chitwood as time expired.

The 23-14 halftime lead quickly became 30-14 in the second half, as Oneida’s defense forced Cumberland Gap into a three-and-out, and then Morgan returned the punt 65 yards for a score to break the game open.

Before the third quarter was over, Boyatt scored on a 12-yard run. And Buttram added a 5-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The win allowed Oneida to secure a playoff berth at the season’s midway point. Lambert said that was the important thing, and added that although his team had a bit of a letdown in the way they played, which he blamed partially on the previous week’s hard-fought game at No. 6 Greenback, they pulled it together in the second half.

“To me, Cumberland Gap is a program that, buddy, if you ain’t ready to play, they’re going to bust you in the mouth when you go against them,” Lambert said. “They’re going to give you their best shot every time they play you.

“Hats off to our kids. I thought they fought, clawed and scratched. They did a good job buying in in the second half.”