ULTIMATE TEST: Tigers to square off against top-ranked Wagoner

Byron Beers | Daily Press

Tahlequah junior running back Malik McMurtrey rushed for 131 yards on 24 carrries and had a 26-yard touchdown run against Tulsa McLain last week at Doc Wadley Stadium.

Tahlequah will get an enormous early-season test Friday when it visits Wagoner in a 7 p.m. kickoff.

The Tigers, coming off a sloppy 27-2 season-opening win against Tulsa McLain at Doc Wadley Stadium, will now face perhaps their toughest opponent of the 2020 season in the Class 4A top-ranked Bulldogs. Wagoner opened its season with a 28-0 home win over Coweta last week.

“We know we’ve got our hands full, but we’re excited about the opportunity,” Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said Wednesday. “They return all 11 starters on defense and I think they’ve got 19 returning starters total. They’re very talented, and the bottom line is they win at a very high level. They’re very explosive on both sides of the ball and even on special teams.

“Wagoner is going to be as good or better than anybody we play all year. We’re excited. It’s a big challenge, but every big challenge is a great opportunity.”

Tahlequah has two substantial streaks going into Friday’s game. The Tigers have won their last 11 road games and their previous 10 regular season non-district games. The last road loss was to Bishop Kelley in 2017, and the last non-district loss came to Sallisaw in 2016.

There was both good and bad in Tahlequah’s week one victory.

“We executed pretty well other than some bad snaps and getting behind the chains at times,” Gilbert. “I’m proud of the guys. There’s a lot of guys out there for the first time. I felt a lot better about what we saw over the weekend in reviewing the game film, but obviously we’ve got to continue to improve. We’re not where we need to be. But these kids come to work everyday, they work hard, they play hard, and they want to be as good as they can be.”

A majority of the good came defensively where the Tigers forced five turnovers, including interceptions from senior safety Qua’shon Leathers and senior linebacker Shaw Thornton, limited McLain to just 131 total yards, and did not give up any points.

“Defensively, we did a lot of good things,” Gilbert said. “We showed a lot, a lot of kids were involved, and anytime you can walk off the field with close to 20 players playing on defense, that’s a good thing.”

Senior linebacker Angel Quezada led THS with seven total tackles, while Hunter Clay, Carson Ferguson and Thornton each followed with six tackles. The Tigers produced four quarterback sacks.

“Shaw Thornton had a really good game,” Gilbert said. “He had an interception, six tackles and just played really well. Hunter had a good game at defensive end. He had six tackles, a couple of hurries, a sack. He just made some plays in his first time to ever play.”

Although there were some bright spots, penalties, turnovers and bad snaps hampered the Tigers on offense. One bad snap resulted in a safety, and Tahlequah committed three turnovers.

Gilbert liked what he got from junior quarterback Tyler Joice in his first career start. Joice completed 9 of 16 passes for 71 yards with a passing touchdown and a rushing score.

“I thought Tyler played really well,” Gilbert said. “He’s very poised and nothing seems to phase him. He had a couple of mistakes here and there, but he was able to move past them and you have to have that in a quarterback. I thought his first game as a starting quarterback here at Tahlequah was probably as good as we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Junior running back Malik McMurtrey was also productive with 131 rushing yards on 24 carries, including a 26-yard scoring run. Senior receivers Kobey Baker and Tanner Christian each had three receptions, and Christian had a 13-yard TD catch. Baker added 27 yards on the ground and had a 19-yard TD run.

Wagoner presents a whole other challenge.

“They’ve got a veteran presence and they’ve been there in those big games,” Gilbert said. “They know how to handle adversity when it comes their way and you can see that. “There’s a lot of talent, a lot of size, and a lot of speed on the field.”

The Bulldogs were stout defensively against Coweta, allowing just 102 total yards. Coweta was held to nine yards on 23 carries on the ground, and the Bulldogs forced two turnovers and limited the Tigers to only three first downs.

“They just run to the ball so well,” Gilbert said. “They’re going to create problems. They bring pressure and when they come, they come. They’re very, very athletic and they have a lot of moving parts.”

The Bulldogs were led offensively by senior running back Braden Drake, who rushed for a game-high 159 yards on 18 carries and had touchdown runs of 77 and seven yards. Wagoner, who rushed for 338 yards as a team, also received 59 rushing yards and a 30-yard TD run from Brian Trimble and 52 rushing yards from Fredrick Watson.

“They’re going to run right at you, and you better be ready for it,” Gilbert said. “They’re about 80 percent run, and defensively you’ve got to answer the bell everytime that ball is snapped because it’s coming right at you. It’s good for our guys because we’re going to find out where we’re at and also it kind of gives us an idea of where we need to improve moving forward.”

Tahlequah will close non-district play on Friday, Sept. 18 when it hosts McAlester at Doc Wadley Stadium. The Tigers were originally scheduled to host Sallisaw, but the Black Diamonds are in quarantine due to COVID-19.

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