By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Winning won’t be enough this week for the Stillwater High School football team as it takes on Sand Springs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Pioneer Stadium.
“This is a must win for us,” senior defensive back Chuck Neal said. “We have to win by at least 15 — no less than that.”
Fifteen seems like a precise number for a team that’s dropped their last three district games by a combined score of 134-67. But a loss to the Sandites (6-1, 3-1 in district) or a close win and Stillwater’s faint glimmer of playoff hopes will likely be extinguished with two games to go.
“We’re approaching this game like everything depends on it,” Stillwater coach Tucker Barnard said. “We’re in a situation right now where we’re either going to lay down and kind of check it in or we’re going to play like our hair is on fire. ... If we can find a way to win out and win big in each of those games, then we’ll throw a big wrench into the playoff meeting. That’s what we’re working to do.”
It isn’t going to be easy. A rare Thursday night game leaves Stillwater (3-4, 1-3 in district) with a short week of practice — something the Pioneers’ defense needed after giving up 327 yards on the ground to Bartlesville.
“We’ve been working on inside contain in practice this week,” Neal said. “We want to keep all their runners on the inside. I think it’s really helped this week.”
Barnard said the big key to stopping the Sand Springs’ rushing attack will be getting pressure in the backfield.
“We have to do a better job on the defensive line by getting off blocks better and making some tackles at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield,” Barnard said. “We gave up several big plays last Friday — which was a lot of those yards — but the main thing is that we’ve got to get off the field. We played too many plays on defense because we weren’t getting off the field on third down. Their offense had a lot of extended drives and we had a lot of short drives. That combination just put our defense out their too much.”
Keeping Stillwater’s offense on the field has been a problem since sophomore quarterback Braxton Noble went down against Tulsa Union. Noble threw a couple of passes in practice Tuesday and had a doctor’s appointment Wednesday, but Barnard said he doesn’t expect him to be available against Sand Springs.
“To be perfectly honestly, we don’t have any expectations about (his doctor’s appointment),” Barnard said. “We’ll see what the doctor says. If we’re not to a place where he has no pain, then it’s not going to matter. As of (Tuesday) he still has a little bit of pain. We’ll just have to wait and see what the doctor says, but we’re preparing to not have him just like we have been doing the last couple of weeks.”
Instead, Barnard hopes sophomore Taggart Brown can continue to improve with his third start of the season. Brown threw three touchdowns and four interceptions against Bartlesville in the loss.
“A couple of things that he did was because he lacked game experience,” Barnard said. “There were also some times on Friday night where he had balls dropped that should have been touchdowns. It’s not all on Taggart. He’s made some mistakes, but there’s been a lot of different times and a lot of different areas where we’re not helping him.”
With Brown still learning the offense, Stillwater has gone with a more balanced attack — using Neal and fellow senior Davyn Thompson to take some pressure off Brown.
“It helps a lot to be able to run the ball,” Neal said. “Davyn (Thompson) does most of the work on the outside. I’m a little bigger, so I’ve been getting a couple carries up the middle. It’s not something new. We’re just trying to help each other out however we can.”
Barnard compared his team to an wounded animal that was cornered after Friday’s loss to Bartlesville. Now Neal and the Pioneers are hoping to show that they still have some fight left in them to keep their playoff hopes alive.
“I think we can fight and get that last playoff spot,” Neal said. “We just have to make sure that we win all the rest of the games by 15 or more, and we need to make sure that even if we win by 15, we perform well so that we hit our stride if we do make the playoffs.”