Thompson wins opener in battle of defending champs
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
ALABASTER – With a combined 90 points, Thompson and Oxford put on a show for fans in the long-awaited season opener featuring two defending state champions on Saturday, Aug. 22.
But with five touchdowns from junior quarterback Conner Harrell in his first start and four from senior running back Jarrett Crockett, the Warriors were able to open the season with a 56-34 victory over the Yellow Jackets.
“I think our kids’ intensity was great. We were just so happy and blessed to be playing football and we kind of got to watch two nights of it,” Thompson head coach Mark Freeman said of his team’s effort in the win. “You’re playing a good team and we have a long way we need to go, but I was really happy with the way we played.”
With Harrell making his first start in the game, returning running back Jarrett Crockett got the ball often in the first half and took advantage of his carries early in the game.
The senior, who totaled more than 600 yards in a backup role last year, stepped in as a starter and put up four first-half touchdowns for the Warriors as part of 42 points.
After Thompson’s defense forced a quick turnover on downs in Oxford territory, the Warriors went 30 yards in four plays capped off by Crockett’s first touchdown of the night from 8 yards out.
That was part of a strong first quarter for Thompson’s defense and offense, which paired together perfectly.
Following another easy stop, Thompson went back to work quickly, but the offense faced a series of weird plays.
In one of the Warriors’ longest drives of the game, they eventually faced second and 34 due to penalties on back-to-back plays negating two touchdown passes from Harrell to Sam Reynolds on the same exact play.
After getting a few yards back, the Warriors made it third-and-15 from the 28. For the third time on the drive, they scored a touchdown, and this one stood with no penalty after Harrell connected with Tre Roberson for a 28-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead with 3:34 left in the opening period.
The defense again gave the ball right back to Thompson’s offense, and the Warriors capitalized once more.
Following a 39-yard pass to J.B. Mitchell, Harrell was able to escape pressure on the next drive to power his way into the end zone for a 9-yard score.
That put the Warriors up 21-0 at the end of the opening period, and all looked to be good.
But Thompson star defensive back Tony Mitchell went down with an injury shortly after, and Oxford quarterback Trey Higgins took advantage.
In the second quarter, the Warriors started to struggle to find ways to stop the passing game of Higgins in particular, but his legs also caused them trouble a few times.
He went on to throw touchdown passes of 50 and 14 yards to star receiver Roc Taylor, while also connecting with Bakari Dailey for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
That gave Higgins three touchdown passes in the second quarter to keep the Yellow Jackets in the game, but Crockett had an answer every time for Thompson.
He scored three touchdowns in the second quarter to answer each Oxford score, taking in a 31-yard touchdown pass from Harrell and touchdown runs of 18 and 8 yards.
His play, along with the ability of the offense to run smoothly with its playmakers, allowed the Warriors to maintain their 21-point lead at the break by a score of 42-21.
Crockett totaled 115 yards and three touchdowns rushing with another 31 yards and a touchdown receiving in the half.
“Jarrett has had a really good offseason,” Freeman said. “He’s done really well in the weight room and on the field. I like the running back duo we have between he and Brandon Franklin.”
But early in the second half, it was Oxford’s offense that continued to roll when Higgins connected with Bakari Dailey for the second time on the night, picking up his fourth touchdown pass of the night.
That brought the Yellow Jackets back within 14 points at 42-28 midway through the third quarter.
“He’s just a competitor man,” Freeman said of Higgins after the game. “He’s a good quarterback. He reminds me of Tyler Johnson, who I had at Spanish Fort and was one of my favorites. I like the kid and think he is a really good quarterback. He battled all night.”
But Freeman also wasn’t pleased with the way his defense, which has several talented recruits on it, played, saying he felt like the offense needed to score on every possession at one point.
“You guys have been blowing them up, rat poison as coach (Nick) Saban calls it,” Freeman said of the defensive hype coming into the year. “I’ll just say this: We better get a lot better on defense or we’re in trouble this year.”
But despite the inconsistency on defense following the shutout in the first quarter, Harrell stepped up his game down the stretch to help close out the win in his first start.
After the Jackets got within 14, Harrell was able to lead another strong drive that he capped off with his legs once again, this time from 7 yards out to put the Warriors on top 49-28 with 3:23 let in the third.
Then, after one of the better stops by the defense on the ensuing possession, Thompson got the ball back with 1:16 left in the third quarter and went to work.
The Warriors put together a 15-play drive that went 87 yards and ate more than seven minutes of clock. The drive ended when Harrell lobbed a beautiful fade pass 27 yards to Mitchell in the right corner of the end zone to put the Warriors on top 56-28.
“The whole night was really to see if Conner Harrell could run our offense,” Freeman said. “I’m so happy for him. He had a lot of pressure on him. We had Taulia (Tagovailoa) and Sawyer (Pate) come in and do a great job and he’s just a junior. But he came in and handled himself and did really good.”
Higgins showed his poise one last time on the ensuing possession when he rumbled 81 yards for a touchdown run that brought the game to its final score.
Harrell finished the game 18-for-25 passing with 269 yards and three touchdowns, while he also added nine carries for 35 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Crockett led the rushing attack with 17 carries for 132 yards and his four first-half touchdowns, while Franklin added 53 yards.
Mitchell led all receivers with 93 yards, while Roberson added 89. Both had a touchdown.
Higgins finished the night with 170 rushing yards and four touchdowns through the air, while adding 179 rushing yards and one touchdown on the ground to lead Oxford.
Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.