What?: State Championship Game of the MHSAA 5A Playoffs
Where?: Davis-Wade Stadium at Scott Field on the campus of Mississippi State University
When?: Saturday, December 6th @ 7:00 PM
How can you keep yourself updated?: MyMS Channel 4.2 on TV, 95.5 FM Radio, Bullseye955.com, @OxChargerSports Twitter account
The Lowdown: So, here we are. Back to the game Oxford has worked so hard to get back to after that bad-tasting defeat at the hands of Picayune where the Maroon Tide scored 21 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to win the 5A Title last year. It was by far the worst quarter of the year with a margin of -21 and that could not have come at a worse time when coming into the quarter, the Chargers had not given up that many points in a quarter and in most games last year.
The motto all year long is to "Finish the Drill." That meant to finish plays, finish the tackle, finish the game, make the play that decides the game. Oxford hasn't had to do a whole lot of that so far as most of the games were finished well before the last few minutes of each game save for Jackson Prep - the only game where the margin was within two possessions, and that occurred back in August.
Oxford comes in with the oh so obvious experience of being in the Championship game and having lost it the way they did. Every single athlete starting on offense and defense knows that feeling - and I probably didn't need to reiterate. It seemed like this whole season, there was just this bad taste entering every game this season that Oxford was trying to get out. Going through the entire season didn't seem quite as fun as last year was, up until that last quarter. Oxford was clearly the best team in 5A for 59 quarters last year. It showed every single quarter.
Oxford has scored 41 points in 11 of their last 12 games. The offense - whatever it has been Ben Bianco or Jack Abraham - has been moving the ball. The offense and defense has been fully healthy for just the past four weeks. Luckily it is the four weeks that mattered the most. The offense hasn't been stopped. The defense has shined a whole lot more often than not. Special Teams is clicking a lot more than it has been. This team has limped through the regular season having suffered injury after injury at some of the most critical positions (namely QB, WR, RB, and CB) and yet still managed not just a 13-1 record, but slaughtered nearly every single opponent despite all the injuries which included a big win over New Hope despite not having Jack Abraham and Kyree White, a road win over eventual AAA MAIS Champion Jackson Prep without two of Oxford's top CB's and facing a rarely used Polecat offense, and winning games by around 30 points every single game despite injuries to many members of the team.
The Laurel Golden Tornadoes is all that stand between Oxford and their first ever State Championship in Football. This is Laurel's 5th appearance in the State Title game, but first in 5A, first since losing to Oxford's crosstown-rival Lafayette in 2011. The Golden Tornadoes are looking for the third title in Football. They obviously wouldn't have gotten here without having some talent. Laurel QB Keon Howard behind Abraham is rated as the best QB in Mississippi in the Junior class while his best receiver, Omar Bayless, is regarded as the best Tight End recruit in the Junior class. Howard's numbers are impressive passing for around 250 yards per game, but only completing fewer than 55% of his passes. He does own a 35-9 TD-INT ratio.
The Tornadoes have been able to get this far despite the lack of a running game (Peyton Manning-isc if you will). The leading rusher for Laurel only has a little more than 600 yards on the season, but it is back-by-committee because they use as many as four backs during the game. They do have 33 rushing touchdowns on the season on just 2,000+ team rushing yards, meaning they will likely try to run the ball when inside the Oxford red zone. It terms of their schedule, they lost to Hattiesburg in a "huh?" result of 43-26. The same Hattiesburg team got clobbered by Wayne County a couple weeks later who got beat by Laurel twice (which is who they had to beat to get to this game). Ya'll figure that one out. They also lost a home game to division opponent Pearl River Central by a touchdown where all that team did was run the ball and did not attempt a single pass. Laurel still got the one-seed because PRC lost a couple games themselves and Laurel otherwise ran the table.
Oxford should be able to counter the passing threat with their healthy secondary. Last time Oxford faced a team who knows what they are doing when they are passing the ball, Oxford was without their two best CB's and also didn't tackle very well. That doesn't mean forget the run game. Laurel is a 55-45 run-pass team. Meanwhile when they do pass, they like to take shots down the field as Howard is getting around 21 yards per completion, the reason behind their explosive offense that has scored 545 points this season.
Oxford's passing game will receive a real threat to stop them for the first time this season as that is Laurel's strong suit on defense and might have a cornerback that can give DK Metcalf a challenge which is rare to find. Their run defense is below-average at best which is why they have lost games at all. Against East Central where they allowed 41 points, they allowed three 100-yard rushers. In their loss to PRC, all they did was run and did not even attempt a pass (that is according to the stats posted on Maxpreps).
Oxford is back for another crack at the 5A Title. This time, they want to finish the drill...
For Oxford to Win the Championship, They Must: Be Able to Run the Football - In the games where Laurel has lost to PRC and gave up 41 points to East Central, those teams have combined to throw two passes. Kenzie needs to continue his mad pace he has had lately to get this offense going.
Execute Special Teams - Oxford has done it especially in regards to onside kicks all year. That isn't the only area though. Laurel has four blocked punts on the year, enough to pose a threat in the punting game and can give Laurel a quick and cheap 7 if Oxford's offense does stall.
Prevent the Big Play - Laurel thrives on the big play. Their offense depends on it. Oxford must make those a premium for Laurel and they must make them drive the ball down the field and not allow big chunks of yards like they are known to do.
Finish the Drill - You knew that had to be one of them. Oxford needs to FINISH this time unlike last time. No doubt regardless of what I type out, this team will come out and play hard with a chip on their shoulder knowing exactly what happened last year.
For Laurel to Win the Championship, They Must: Defend the Pass - this might be the only team who can stand up to Oxford's three wideout threats long enough to give their offense a chance, which will be the best offense the Chargers have faced since the Starkville game.
Stop Kenzie Phillips - Or the Tornadoes will have to commit more people to the run, which plays into Oxford's hands. You can either stop this dangerous passing attack or you can stop the dangerous Phillips, but one of these battles must be won by Laurel if their defense is going to stop this offense.
Keep Oxford Out of the End Zone - 3 is a win, 7 is bad on defense. If Laurel can keep Oxford moving between the 20s and not into their end zone, they will stand a shot. Laurel won't be afraid to take 3 instead of 7 because they are confident in their offense.
No Turnovers - In their two losses, they have committed 9 Turnovers. In 12 wins, just 5. Oxford has forced 39 Turnovers this season. Keeping possession will be key.
Other Notes: Oxford is 0-3 all-time in the month of December in the sport of Football including 0-2 in State Title games. RB Kenzie Phillips needs 23 rushing yards to break Mont Dean's single-season rushing yards record of 1,690.
Directions to Davis-Wade Stadium: Take Miss-6/US-278 East for 48 miles. Turn right onto US-45 South, then continue onto US-45 ALT South for 51 miles. Take exit to US-82 West towards Starkville for 7 miles. Take exit towards MSU onto Miss-12 West for 3 miles. (At this point, there could be signs as to further directions as to where to park, but if not...) Turn left onto Russell St. for 1/2 mile. The stadium should be on the left. Total Miles: 110.