PETAL – It's one of football's oldest maxims – the key to winning a game is to win the turnover battle.
Petal and Oak Grove came off games where turnovers were the difference in each of their losses last week, and so naturally, both sides emphasized it throughout the week. However, the Warriors emerged victorious as Oak Grove forced four turnovers to defeat Petal 31-20 at Panther Stadium.
In the middle of the critical turnovers and some of the game's biggest moments was Oak Grove defensive back/punt returner Nehemiah Taylor, who was a member of Petal's team last season. Taylor came down with an interception to set up a touchdown as he scored on a 60-plus yard punt return.
"(This game) means a lot," Taylor said. "We all play a sport that we love. It means a lot to give back to the community and give them the show that they want.
"This whole week, we have been looking forward to this game. It's been a big rivalry since the 1980s. The main thing that we worked on at practice was the defense. We grew in just this week with communicating and got together, and that played a big role in getting this win tonight."
Yet early on in the game, it seemed Petal (3-3, 0-2) would have the advantage in the turnover battle. In the first drive of the Oak Grove, the Warriors drove to Petal's 20-yard line. On a quarterback draw, Petal's Amari Butler forced the ball out of AJ Maddox's to force a fumble. However, Oak Grove wide receiver Jaylen Aborom managed to pick up the ball and score the game's first touchdown. Ironically, Aborom said it was his fault the fumble happened since he let go of the player he was blocking too early.
"It was actually my fault because I let my guy go, and so it was mainly my fault," Aborom said. "But it was a fumble, and I just picked it up fast and ran it to the end zone. I take the blame.
"I know I was going to hear about it, and I'm still going to hear it during film for letting the guy go."
Petal punted on its first drive, but Taylor muffed the punt and fumbled it away on Oak Grove's 5-yard line. Three plays later, Petal quarterback Deljay Bailey scored on a 5-yard run to tie the game at 7-7.
The Panthers maintained the momentum, and after stopping Oak Grove (4-2, 1-1) on fourth down, running back Ryan Poole erupted for a 44-yard touchdown to give Petal a 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
Two drives later, Petal punted, and initially, it seemed as if the Panthers would pin Oak Grove well within their territory. The ball took several bounces before Taylor scooped the ball up around the Warriors' 30-yard line and scored on the punt return to tie the game at 14-14.
"I had told myself that if it bounces to me, I'm going to take it, and if it doesn't, then I'm going to let it go," Taylor said. "It bounced to me, I got a great block from my teammate, and I saw a wide-open gap, and I took it."
"I was actually shocked that he scooped it up," Oak Grove coach Drew Causey added. "He's let everyone bounce all year. This was a big game for (Nehemiah) Taylor. He moved over to our place this year, and it was a big game for him. We are extremely happy that he had the success he had tonight."
Later in the second quarter, Taylor intercepted Bailey, who finished the game 8-for-22 with 79 yards and three interceptions, and returned it 40-yards before being brought down. On the next play, Maddox connected with Aborom for a 20-yard touchdown to give the Warriors a 21-14 lead.
Timely sacks by Oak Grove, along with three turnovers by Petal in the second half, kept the Panthers from finding life.
"It's a broken record," Petal coach Allen Glenn said. "In the games that we have not been successful, we haven't taken care of the football. It's pretty disheartening. It's something we focus on.
"They forced some turnovers, but then again, I feel like we gave them a few as well. I thought we were right there. I thought we had our chances. Oak Grove found a way, and we didn't."
Oak Grove extended its lead in the fourth quarter after running back Kylin Champagne scored on a 2-yard run, but a missed PAT made the score 28-20. The Panthers stayed in the game after Bailey scored on a 7-yard run with just over seven minutes left.
Petal then forced a three and out and gave its offense a chance to tie the game, but Oak Grove's Caleb Moore stripped the ball and recovered the fumble on the Panther's 11-yard line. The Warriors then hit a 24-yard field goal to put the game out of reach. Notably, Petal ran 75 plays and came up with 290 yards of offense, while Oak Grove had 206 yards of offense on 46 plays.
"Our guys played with a lot of heart," Causey said. "They did exactly what I asked them. They did exactly what we told them to do all week. They did it tonight. It shows that when we do that, we have a good team and that we have a chance to win a lot of ball games.
"(The defense) play lights out. I thought they played well all night long."
Oak Grove returns home to host Terry while Petal goes on the road to face Brandon.