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Oxford defense taking play to a new level after being “humbled” at Starkville

The Chargers were simply dejected walking off the field in Starkville in August.

Oxford gave up nearly 500 yards of total offense to the Yellowjackets in the 45-17 loss. Starkville quarterback Luke Altmyer threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns, and the team ran 147 yards on Oxford. Just the second week of the season, the Charger defense made a point to not let the early season loss define them.

“Starkville week, we weren’t playing as a team. We weren’t playing as a unit,” junior linebacker Tristian Shorter said. “There was a lot of pointing fingers. When we came back to practice next week, and got it together, we started playing more as a unit after that and I think that’s been helping. It humbled us for real.”

The next week, Oxford came out aggressive and attacking defensively. The team scored 33 unanswered points against Grenada at home. The Oxford first team defense held Grenada to zero points through three quarters of play before many were replaced by the junior varsity, and Grenada had a chance to score two touchdowns late.

Shorter recovered two fumbles in the game, spending a lot of time in the backfield as part of a unit that held Grenada quarterback Joshua Phillips to 63 total passing yards. The game also operated as a sort of 2019 coming out for senior inside linebacker Kiyon Williams. Williams, who was recently selected to play in the Mississippi-Alabama all-star game, recorded 12 tackles against Grenada.

“We’ve just taken to the mindset of doing what we have to do on our side of the ball. We’re focusing on us, what we can do and trying to be 1-0 every week,” Williams said. “Starkville showed us what we needed to work on. Like (Tristian) said, it was humbling. But it showed us our weaknesses and strengths and kind of what we needed to work on.”

Whatever they’ve worked on has paid off. Since Starkville, Oxford is outscoring opponents 145-32 (including a 46-7 drubbing in the Crosstown Classic) and more importantly are 4-0 in the record book. That defense that allowed 45 points in Starkville has allowed two touchdowns over the last three games.

This past week was a good indication of how far the unit had come. Oxford beat Lewisburg on the road 21-3, a game where the final scoreboard showed dominance, but in which the Chargers actually went scoreless in the first half of play. The offense started slow, struggling with turnovers through the entire first half before turning it up late. But Oxford never fell out of it because of great defensive play, particularly in the redzone. Oxford committed three first-half turnovers, but allowed just three points off those turnovers, a remarkable turnaround from where that same unit was just a month prior.

“There’s been a little better attention to detail from those guys. They’re taking pride in everything that we do because we know we have a chance to be very good defensively,” head coach Chris Cutcliffe said. “And that’s being a team. It’s the job of the team. If the offense is having a bad night, it’s the defense’s job to pick it up. If the defense is having a bad night, it’s the offense’s job to score a lot of points. We all have to have each others’ backs. I’ve been part of teams where when one side isn’t playing well, there’s a lot of griping and complaining and pointing fingers. You can’t have that.”

Lately, Oxford has had both sides of the ball clicking – they’re playing not just like a team, but like a very good one. Despite the scoreless first half in Lewisburg last week, they’ve scored at least 21 points in each of the last four games. In the same four-game stretch, the defense has allowed just one touchdown.