Twenty-four hours after being named the new Oberlin Phoenix kicker, Caleb Hughley was asked to be a hero.
With 1.6 seconds remaining in the season opener in New London Friday, the Phoenix trailed 28-26 with a first-and-goal from the five yard line.
“One, two, three, everything!” the offense chanted during a timeout before Hughley lined up to kick. The kick sailed wide right, ending a frantic, last-minute comeback attempt.
After Wildcats running back Jacob Molnar scored on a three-yard run off the right guard with 48 seconds remaining, the Phoenix marched down the field with the biggest play coming when quarterback David Payne connected with receiver Matt Stanfield for about 30 yards down the left sideline.
A diving Stanfield missed catching the game-winner in the left corner of the end zone by inches on a third-and-goal from the 10. Payne overthrew receiver Mark Robinson in the endzone on fourth-and-10, but the Wildcats were called for pass interference, setting up Hughley’s last-second miss.
After Hughley — who also punts and plays defensive back and receiver — intercepted a Dane Matthews pass and returned it to the Wildcats 36 with 9:30 remaining and Oberlin leading 26-22, the Phoenix appeared poised for victory. But they couldn’t convert on a fourth-and-goal from the nine with Payne throwing the ball out of the endzone.
The Phoenix defense made another big play with Justin Noble intercepting Molnar — who played a few downs at quarterback — and returning the ball to the Wildcats 18-yard line with 6:08 remaining. The Phoenix got conservative, running the ball in an attempt to run out the clock.
With a second-and-goal from the six with 3:22 remaining, they made a costly miscue. Payne fumbled on a botched hand-off to Adrien Kilgore and the Wildcats recovered. “It was kind of sloppy,” Payne said.
Now it was gut check time for the Phoenix defense, which was overpowered at the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats marched down the field with Molnar and running back Joe Sowder making big runs up the middle. The Phoenix were also hurt by a 15-yard face mask penalty on a Molnar run.
Molnar, a senior, said he was “very impressed” with the Phoenix effort, saying they were faster than in his junior year when the Wildcats won 46-27. Molnar said he thought the Phoenix defense got tired on the Wildcats’ last drive. “We were the more conditioned team and that’s what gave us the win,” he said.
Molnar also said the Phoenix — who got first half touchdowns on a 14-yard run by Revon Eisom and a 35-yard run by Aidren Kilgore — were undisciplined. The Phoenix drew 17 penalties, costing 166 yards. The Wildcats were penalized five times for 31 yards.
The Phoenix also fumbled four times with the Wildcats recovering two. New London recovered both their fumbles, but gave up interceptions four times, including two picks by Anderson.
Payne, who ran and passed the ball effectively, credited his offensive line for opening holes and providing protection. He praised his running backs and receivers for making big plays.
“I’m surrounded by great teammates,” he said. “But as good as my performance was, you want to get the win.”
Payne and coach Garrett Mack said the Phoenix, who were 2-8 last year, have improved but need to reduce penalties and stay focused. Penalties included a couple personal fouls where players lost their tempers and scuffled with the Wildcats.
“We’re really gifted,” Mack told his players after the game. “We just need discipline.”
Mack, in an interview, also praised Hughley, a senior and basketball player who is playing his first year of football. “I give that kid all the credit in the world,” Mack said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter
Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Phoenix quarterback David Payne III passes in the first half of Oberlin’s 28-26 loss to the New London Wildcats in New London Friday. Payne excelled at running and throwing the football. He scrambled for a 20-yard touchdown and threw an eight-yard touchdown.