DECATUR, Tenn. — “We’re not into moral victories. Let’s make sure we understand that. We lost the game.”
Those were the first words Oneida coach Tony Lambert said as he talked about his team’s 33-17 loss at Meigs County on Friday. But, he added, “I’m going to say, first and foremost, man I am so danged proud of my kids.”
Going on the road to face the state’s second-ranked team in Class 2A, no one would have given the Indians much of a chance even at full strength. But the Oneida squad that made the trip down S.R. 58 on Friday was hardly full strength. Four starters were gone due to either Covid quarantines or a suspension.
Things got worse during the game as three more starters exited with injury, none more crucial than star running back Kolby Morgan, who exited with a knee injury late in the second quarter and did not return.
And, yet, with less than a minute to play in the football game, Meigs County had a fourth down play from its own 30-yard-line, leading just 27-17.
Rather than choose to play conservatively with the game in hand, the Tigers went to the air on their final offensive play, catching the Indians’ defense a bit off-guard and connecting on a 30-yard touchdown pass that made the final score seem a little more lopsided than it actually was.
But the scoreboard — which still read the final score long after fans had exited the stands and the grounds crew was cleaning up — couldn’t hide the fact that there had been a tightly-contested football game in Decatur.
“I knew the pieces would be there,” Lambert said. “But to see them play with that kind of effort was tremendous to me. We could’ve let the wheels fall off when this one got hurt or that one got hurt. But our kids just kept on clawing and just kept scratching and fighting and playing, and I’m so proud of them I can’t hardly stand it.”
Oneida made a statement early, taking the opening kickoff and marching to the end zone. The Indians needed to convert one fourth down along the way, but did that by using a hard count to draw the Tigers offsides. Moments later, Morgan skipped into the end zone from 19 yards out to give his team the early 7-0 lead.
Meigs County answered, scoring on a 23-yard run by senior running back Will Meadows, and never trailed again. But the Indians kept fighting back.
“We earned every inch we got,” Lambert said. “They hit us on so many big plays, but we found ways to just keep coming back. That’s the thing, to me, that’s the above-average thing. There’s a bunch of great sideline football coaches that think they know this and think they know that, but I can assure you, if you’ve got a pulse, you saw a bunch of kids play their guts out tonight.”
Oneida struggled to move the football at times in the first half. Meigs County, meanwhile, appeared set to punch the ball in for its first lead of the game early in the second quarter, but Joel Couch came up with an interception on the goal line.
Finally, with 8:32 to play in the first half, Tiger quarterback Logan Carroll broke free for a long run to set up his own four-yard touchdown run.
Disaster struck plays later, when a bad snap resulted in a turnover, giving Meigs County possession at the Indians’ 24-yard-line. Two plays later, Meadows scored again, and it was 21-7.
The Tigers were spectacular on the ground, with 350 rushing yards. Meadows had 184 yards on 22 carries. Carroll added 113 yards on 10 carries. As a team, the Tigers averaged nine yards per carry.
But Oneida’s Morgan was on pace to have a night every bit as spectacular as Meadows before he was injured. He tweaked his knee late in the second quarter. After being evaluated by trainers, he re-entered the game, but aggravated the injury on his first play back and did not return. He exited with 85 yards on 15 carries and watched the second half in street clothes, although Lambert said after the game that he did not believe the injury was significant.
In Morgan’s absence, junior quarterback Noah Buttram carried the team. He finished with 51 rushing yards on 12 carries, while also completing five of 13 passes for 68 yards.
Down 21-7, the Indians drove the football inside Meigs County’s 10-yard-line late in the first half but ran out of time and settled for a 24-yard field goal from Aidan Love, and trailed 21-10 at the intermission.
When Meigs County fumbled the second half kickoff — Lorenzo Garcia recovered it — it became apparent how critical that lack of time in the first half had been. The Indians could have otherwise been a play away from tying the game.
As it turned out, Oneida could not capitalize. In fact, the Indians twice had the ball well into Meigs County territory in the third quarter without being able to get anything on the board.
That eventually led to Meadows scoring on a 9-yard run with 55 seconds remaining in the period, giving his team a 27-10 lead.
After an exchange of punts, Oneida finally got on the board again late in the fourth quarter, taking the ball and marching the length of the field to score on a 10-yard run by Buttram with 2:32 to play.
The Indians attempted an onside kick but did not recover. But Meigs County was forced into a third down situation after Oneida twice stopped Meadows in the backfield on first and second down. That led the Tigers to the air on the third down play, their only completion of the night.
Overall, it appeared that Oneida outplayed Meigs County in the second half. The frustration began to appear in the form of a couple of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the Tigers in the half.