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Oxford rallies for win in Chris Cutcliffe’s head coaching debut

SOUTHAVEN — Chris Cutcliffe absorbed the initial shock of the water cooler bath and then smiled as he hugged some of his players.

With the moisture still dripping from some parts of his attire, Oxford’s first-year football coach could only chuckle.

“I think so,” Cutcliffe offered when asked if the first one is one he’ll remember. “You probably don’t ever forget the first game.”

Oxford made a winner out of Cutcliffe in his head coaching debut, one that went from lifeless to victorious for Oxford in a little more than a quarter. Oxford (1-0) scored 19 unanswered points in the final 14 minutes to rally for a 26-20 win at Southaven in both teams’ season opener Friday.

“It was exciting. There’s no doubt about that,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m proud of our coaches and our players. They kept fighting, and I don’t think anybody ever had any doubt.”

Oxford’s defense didn’t allow much outside of a 62-yard touchdown weave by Brandin Echols just before halftime, holding Southaven (0-1) to less than 200 yards of offense. Yet the Chargers trailed 20-7 with 2:39 left in the third quarter after Echols returned an interception of John Reece McClure’s for Southaven’s second pick-six of the night.

McClure, who was picked three times in his first varsity start, came back three plays later to find DeMarea Burt behind the defense for a 66-yard touchdown — Oxford’s first since its first possession of the game — and went to the air again on Oxford’s next drive to draw the Chargers even with a 30-yard scoring toss to Jaquan Webb with 6:29 left.

“John Reece played a great fourth quarter, executed and made great decisions with the football,” Cutcliffe said. “He had plays to make, and he made them.”

Oxford made it three scores in three possessions when junior running back Hiram Wadlington finished a six-play, 40-yard drive with a 12-yard scamper up the middle for his second touchdown of the night. Wadlington, who was limited to nine carries in the second half while battling cramps, still finished with 128 yards while McClure went 15-for-26 for 230 yards.

“I told (the coaches) to sit me out the last three minutes of the third quarter, and I was going to try to come back in with 10 minutes (left) and I wasn’t coming back out,” Wadlington said. “That’s what I did. I was fresh.”

A second missed extra point by Gray Jenkins left Southaven and dual-threat quarterback Marseiluis Vaughn with a chance to drive for a win with 2:11 remaining, but Oxford’s defense bowed up one last time. Vaughn moved Southaven to Oxford’s 31-yard line in six plays before his final pass was deflected into the air and into the hands of cornerback C.J. Terrell for the interception.

Oxford limited Vaughn to 96 yards through the air and 49 on the ground, including 2 net yards in the second half. Terrell had both of Oxford’s interceptions.

“We had been saying that all game that if the offense can get going and we stay up, nobody can stop us,” Terrell said. “We talked on the sideline, came together as a team, and we stepped up.”

Motivating factor

The comeback win was even sweeter for Oxford considering the somber mood of its town following Sunday’s plane crash that killed Oxford residents Drs. Jason and Lea Farese, Dr. Michael Perry and Kim Perry and Dr. Austin Poole and Angie Poole. The couples are survived by 11 children in all.

Players wore helmet decals displaying the phrase “O Strong” and the number 11, something the team will do for every game this season. Dr. Hayden Perkins, a pediatric dentist in Oxford and father of senior receiver Preston Perkins, came up with the idea — one of which Cutcliffe said the team was “extremely supportive.”

“It’s good to see some smiles on some kids’ faces. We’ve had a really rough week,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s like when you saw the pictures of the (orphaned) kids at an Ole Miss football practice and big smiles on their faces, it just makes you feel better and find a little bit of joy in a tough week.”

Terrell said it’s a reminder the Chargers are playing for more than themselves this fall.

“I think it gave us a little motivation,” Terrell said. “Coaches talked about it all week and playing for those 11 kids who are without their parents for the rest of their lives. That’s kind of hard on them, and we wanted to be a little support system for them.

“We didn’t see the decals until Thursday, and we were like, ‘This shows a lot. We’ve got a lot to play for this year.'”