Oxford 42, Twin Valley 35
● By Steven Hoffman
The Oxford Hornets have started the 2017 football season the same way they ended the 2016 season—with two straight victories.
Quarterback Chandler England engineered a 72-yard drive that concluded when he battled his way into the end zone on a two-yard run with 50 seconds left to play in the game. The biggest play on the game-winning drive came when wide receiver Brandon DeShields made a spectacular leaping catch in the middle of the field to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-eight play.
Then, a few moments later, DeShields made a diving interception to end Twin Valley’s comeback bid on the final drive, securing the victory for Oxford.
After watching his team pull out its second last-minute win in a row, Oxford head coach Mike Means said that if he were given a choice, a blowout victory might be preferable to the last-minute variety—but the close wins could help his squad as the 2017 season unfolds.
“I think we’ll be better off because of these close wins,” Means said. “It instills character and the team learns how to close out games.”
Twin Valley, which was playing its first game of the season, started off strong against Oxford as junior quarterback Zachary Gardner led the team on a 70-yard opening drive. Running back David Sabulsky had a nice 22-yard run and Gardner capped the drive with a three-yard run into the end zone, making it 6-0.
Oxford answered right back as England completed three straight passes—two to wide receiver Brandon McWilliams and one to running back Tim Faber—during a nine-play drive that covered 74 yards. Faber scored on a 45-yard touchdown run, and when kicker Jacob O’Connor hit the extra point, it was 7-6 in Oxford’s favor.
Twin Valley marched deep into Oxford territory on its next drive. The big play was a 24-yard pass from Gardner to Sabulsky. But two plays later, Gardner looked for a receiver along the left sideline and lofted a pass that was instead picked off by McWilliams at the one-yard line. McWilliams created the turnover opportunity by getting himself into such good position to defend the pass.
It took Oxford’s offense 17 plays to move 99 yards on the next possession. It wasn’t the cleanest offensive drive—there was a sack, a fumble that was recovered by the offense, and a few penalties mixed in, but the Hornets kept moving the chains. After he hauled in a short pass by England, McWilliams made a nice move to elude a tackler and turn what looked like a short gain into a 19-yard play. Faber moved the chains on an 11-yard carry. A few plays later, Chandler connected with DeShields on a nice 33-yard pass. Oxford finished the drive when Chandler found DeShields in the right corner of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown. It was 14-6.
Oxford made it 21-6 when England threw a 31-yard touchdown to McWilliams with 3:45 left to play in the second quarter.
Twin Valley trimmed Oxford’s lead on its next drive when Gardner found wide receiver Mason Bennett with a 20-yard touchdown pass. The Raiders went for a two-point conversion and Gardner fired a pass to fullback Owen Mable, making it 21-14.
The score stayed the same until late in the third quarter when, with 1:24 left to play, Oxford increased its lead to 28-14 when Faber scored on a three-yard run.
Faber, a sophomore, ran for 100 yards against Twin Valley. He has taken on a larger role than expected as a result of an injury to standout running back Brandon Holz, but Means said that he hasn’t been fazed by the extra workload.
“He’s relaxed and even-keeled,” Means said. “He hasn’t blinked at anything we’ve asked him to do.”
Twin Valley didn’t blink, either. Even though Oxford held a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, the Raiders continued to play hard. Gardner led Twin Valley on a 77-yard scoring drive, scoring a touchdown on a one-yard carry with 8:59 left to play in the game. It was 28-21.
England responded for Oxford, leading the Hornets on a touchdown drive that covered 53 yards on seven plays. The score came on a 14-yard touchdown run by England. Oxford led 34-21.
Twin Valley promptly embarked on an 80-yard drive that included two passes from Gardner to Bennett that covered 40 yards. Gardner found Riley Ott for a 17-yard pass play for the score. It was 34-28 with 4:50 left to play.
The Raiders boldly attempted an onside kick and it worked—they recovered the ball at the 40 of Oxford. The Hornets were then flagged for penalties on consecutive plays—a pass interference call on one and a holding call on the other—and Twin Valley was quickly at the 10-yard line. Gardner threw a strike to Sabulsky for a touchdown, and with the extra point the Raiders led 35-34. There was 3:51 left in the game.
Oxford started its drive at the 28. England kept the ball himself on first down, rolling to the right and finding a hole big enough to pick up four yards. England threw a short pass to tight end Julian Nadachowski, but the gain was minimal as Twin Valley’s defense swarmed. England’s next pass was incomplete, bringing up a crucial fourth-and-eight situation. Oxford had little choice but to go for it since there was no guarantee that they would get the ball back if they punted.
England dropped back to pass and lofted the ball toward DeShields in the middle of the field. The Oxford wide receiver leaped over a defender and hauled in the catch, moving the chains and allowing the drive to continue. On the next play, England found Nadachowski for a big gain as the Hornets moved into Twin Valley territory. They called a timeout to stop the clock with 2:36 left. Now, Oxford didn’t just want to score, they wanted to run as much time off the clock as they could.
On the next play, England ran for 12 yards to move the ball to the 19. A four-yard carry by Faber took the ball to the 15. England called his own number again, steamrolling his way for a ten-yard gain to the five-yard line. There was 1:30 left to play. Faber gained three yards on the next play, and then England finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. Oxford completed a two-point conversion when Faber ran the ball in, giving Oxford a 42-35 lead with 50 seconds to play.
After the kickoff, Twin Valley took over at the 21-yard-line, hoping for one more comeback drive. Gardner dropped back and looked to complete a pass to a receiver on the right side of the field, but DeShields read the play and got in position for a diving interception near the 30-yard-line. The ball and the victory belonged to Oxford.
Means said that when he saw DeShields pull in the interception, all he felt was relief.
“He did a great job of jumping that route,” the coach said.
Oxford’s three interceptions were instrumental in the team’s victory. “The turnover battle is the number-one factor when it comes to winning a game or losing it,” Means said. “Our defense was able to make some plays tonight to get the ball back to the offense.”
Means explained that after the 34-27 win over a good West Chester Henderson squad in Week One, the Oxford coaches talked to the players about needing to handle the success and stay focused on each opponent. For most of the game, Oxford did that—but then there was a lapse in the fourth quarter that allowed Twin Valley to make a comeback. Means said that Oxford can’t have lapses like that during games—it’s important to play all 48 minutes of football.
One player who exemplifies giving maximum effort is certainly England, Oxford’s senior quarterback. On the night, he ran for two touchdowns and threw for two others, finishing the game with 285 yards passing.
“He’s the hardest worker on the team,” Means said. “It’s really like having another coach on the field—he knows our offense so well. I love coaching the kid. We ask him to do a lot, and he just does it. The kid is special.”
Means said that he was impressed with the effort that Twin Valley gave—they never let up for a minute, even after falling behind.
“Hats off to Twin Valley,” Means said. “They battled every second of that game, so kudos to the players and their coaches.”
Twin Valley will face Kennett on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. Oxford, meanwhile, will look to improve to 3-0 when they host Phoenixville on Friday night, Sept. 8.