Oak Grove senior Aaron Graham took a handoff and patiently waited for a hole to appear on the left side of the offensive line. A split-second later, he burst through a crease, maneuvered his way to the sideline and ignited a footrace with the California defensive backfield.
After a 76-yard gallop on the second play of the game, Graham was gone.
And the rout was on.
Oak Grove ran over previously-unbeaten California 49-14 in a Missouri Class 3 state semifinal on Friday. The Panthers, 12-2, will play at 1 p.m. on Nov. 28 in St. Louis in search of the first state championship in program history.
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“That was a point of showing them that we came to fight,” Graham said of the opening-drive touchdown. “We came in, and we did everything we had to do. And this is the result you get from that.”
A week after he scored seven touchdowns to end Maryville’s 42-game winning streak, Graham’s encore didn’t quite stack up. But it was plenty good. He ran for 221 yards and three touchdowns in Friday’s blowout victory.
Yet he accounted for less than half of Oak Grove’s rushing offense. His early success opened up running lanes for his backfield mates. Landon Cairer and Jake Harrenstein also topped 100 yards, with Cairer finding the end zone twice and Harrenstein once.
“We have three great running backs who are a threat,” Graham said. “When you try to stop me, you got two other backs you have to try to stop. You can’t stop all of us.”
Turns out, California couldn’t stop any of the three.
Oak Grove finished with 532 yards on the ground. Quarterback Austin Blackston added another 71 yards and a touchdown.
“I think they were bringing people out of the stands to put in the box against us,” Oak Grove coach Pat Richard said. “To our kids’ credit, we just kept blocking, and the running backs made plays when they had to.”
Oak Grove’s defense prevented any thought of a shootout.
California totaled 365 yards in the game, but the production didn’t show up on the scoreboard. It returned a first-quarter kickoff for a touchdown, but it was negated by a penalty.
And it failed in an opportunity to grab momentum heading into halftime.
California trailed 21-7 with the ball on the 1-yard line and 2 seconds remaining in the first half. It elected to go for the touchdown. Oak Grove stuffed Nathan Squires in the backfield.
“I thought that was huge. It took the wind out of them,” Richard said. “... I don’t know if they thought they could stop us, but they thought they could score with us. And then we got that stop right there before the half.”
It ended the first half on a positive note. The second half was filled with a lot more of them.
As a result, the Panthers are headed to the state championship for the first time since 1990.
“I know ever since Coach Richard came in, this has been our No. 1 goal. The fact that it’s finally here is unbelievable,” Graham said. “We worked really hard for this, so we’re going to go and get it.”