Tahlequah will begin District 5A-4 play a week later than scheduled when it hosts Tulsa Nathan Hale Friday on homecoming in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Doc Wadley Stadium.
The Tigers didn’t get a chance to open against Pryor last week in Pryor after a late-week cancelation was announced on Thursday, Sept. 24 due to COVID-19 concerns.
Tahlequah (1-2) is coming off consecutive losses to Wagoner and McAlester with the lone win coming in the season and home opener against Tulsa McLain. The Tigers captured their first district championship since 1991 last season under head coach Brad Gilbert.
Hale enters Friday’s game winless at 0-3 with losses to Tulsa East Central, Tulsa Will Rogers and Skiatook. The Rangers have been outscored, 210-20.
Despite back-to-back difficult losses to teams that are a combined 7-1, Gilbert has seen progress from a mostly inexperienced group.
“The scoreboard may not indicate it, but we believe that we continue to get better every week in a lot of things,” Gilbert said last week. “Obviously, last week wasn’t the outcome we would have liked, but you saw some growth in some areas that we needed to see.”
The Tigers will get a big boost offensively this week with the return of junior running back Malik McMurtrey. McMurtrey missed both the Wagoner and McAlester games after rushing for 137 yards on 24 carries with a touchdown against McLain.
First-year starting quarterback Tyler Joice has completed 37 of 58 passes for 335 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions over three games. Joice threw for 132 yards with a score and added 23 yards on the ground with another TD against the Buffaloes.
Senior receiver Kobey Baker had a game-high 10 receptions and finished with 101 yards and a touchdown last week. Baker leads the Tigers with 22 catches and 186 yards and three TDs.
Offensively, Tahlequah is averaging 171.3 total yards per game. The Tigers have turned the ball over eight times, three of those coming at crucial times in the fourth quarter against McAlester.
“Turnovers are just part of it,” Gilbert said. “That’s guys trying to make plays, and that last play [against McAlester], there’s a guy in Tyler’s face, so he was throwing it off his back foot. It’s an opportunity to learn from it. I was glad to see how we responded because we had the turnover on the fumble, and our defense forces a fumble on the next play. They could’ve easily given up and they didn’t. They were really resilient and showed a lot of courage to overcome the adversity.”
Tahlequah’s defense has been solid through the first three weeks, limiting opponents to 181.3 total yards and forcing eight turnovers. The Tigers have nine tackles for losses and eight quarterback sacks. Opponents are converting just 26.5 percent on third downs.
Senior safety Qua’shon Leathers had 18 of his team-high 30 tackles against McAlester. Leathers also has an interception. Senior linebacker Angel Quezada added 15 tackles last week, while Shaw Thornton and Eli McWilliams finished with 10 each. Thornton has 20 tackles on the year with two interceptions, and Quezada has 23 tackles and a pair of quarterback sacks.