PLYMOUTH, Mass. -- Somewhere off in the distance, as the questions persisted to his star running back and the condition of his ankle, Plymouth South coach Scott Fry couldn't help but yell out in his best attempt at a Belichickian standard.
"He'll be fine, he's 100 percent, he'll be ready for D-Y [Dennis-Yarmouth] next week," Fry chuckled as his star running back, Dylan Oxsen, discussed his on-again, off-again ankle following a 191-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Panthers' 21-14 win over archrival Plymouth North.
"I can vouch for that, I'll be fine for next week," replied the senior tailback.
It sure looked like he was taking a beating out there this afternoon, before a capacity crowd at Romano Field. On one of the game's first drives, Oxsen appeared to roll his ankle badly and disappeared to the sideline, only to re-appear several plays later. As the game went on, he took big shot after big shot from North linebackers, some leaving him sprawled on the turf and slow to get up.
It wasn't until the final minutes, the game in hand, when Oxsen -- down again, the ankle re-aggravated -- finally left the field for good. After the handshake lines had completed, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Oxsen had to be carried by two teammates to the huddle near midfield where Fry was delivering his post-game speech.
Not only did Oxsen shrug it all off, he said he wouldn't have it any other way.
"It’s just an old injury from last season, it’s been nagging. I couldn’t sit out," he said. "It’s the biggest game of the year, our rivalry against North. This is the big game.
"Everyone’s saying ‘Oh, you play North twice’ –- Yeah, we do, but once Thanksgiving comes around, the playoffs have already started. So this is the game for the playoffs. I couldn’t sit on the sideline and risk losing, while sitting and knowing I’m not helping."
Immunity at this point, perhaps?
"It really is," he laughed. "Last year, I played through four or five games of it just bugging the crap out of me. It is, it’s getting good, immunity I guess you could say."
The Panthers (3-0) took the lead early on North (1-2), opening the game with a nine-play, 65-yard, five-minute scoring drive, capped with a nine-yard strike from Rick Barnhardt to Ryan Donovan. The senior tight end released off the line of scrimmage and ran an out route to the back pylon, where he hauled in the easy pass with nobody around him.
Oxsen made it 14-0 with his second interception return in three weeks. Crashing downhill out of a Cover 2 from the safety position, Oxsen came up for help on a receiver running an out to the sideline, tipped the ball up to himself, and took off 90 yards down the sideline for the pick-six.
"I was pretty mad that I dropped the one before that," Oxsen said. "I was looking around and saw the guy in the flat or out or whatever it was, I came up pretty sure there was another guy on him... I didn’t know if I was gonna outrun everyone."
South went up two scores again early in the fourth when Oxsen broke free of a scrum and marched 58 yards to paydirt. But just when it was about to be wrapped up, North made a game of it again. Junior quarterback Cullin Cosgrove hit tight end Jesse Jason on a dime as he fell out of bounds at the one yard line. That set up Christian Carr's one-yard dive two plays later for the 21-14 score.
The Eagles had two tries late in the game, but were thwarted terrifically both times. First, on fourth and four from the Panthers five yard line, Cosgrove's waggle to the left was snuffed out by the defensive line.
"We went to a four front, one of their big plays has been...their quarterback is very good out of the pocket," Fry said. "Him having a choice between running the ball, the tight end on the drag or the fullback in the flat, gives him three different options. That’s a big play they’ve gone to, it’s one of Coach [Kevin] Cobban’s favorite plays. We went to a four front, defensive end did a nice job trying to pull up Cosgrove, did a good job covering fullback."
After a South three-and-out that saw Oxsen leave on a hobbled ankle without return, the Eagles took over at the South 42 but threw four straight incompletions taking deep shots downfield.
Risk pays off: An overlooked decision, but a crucial one nonetheless, came late in the third quarter, with South facing fourth and one from its own 37 yard line. Holding on to a 14-7 lead, with plenty of time left in the game, convention says to punt in this situation. Instead, Fry opted to call a counter play for -- who else? -- Oxsen. The gamble paid off, as Oxsen took off down the left side for a 38-yard game. And while the drive didn't end in a score, a message had been sent and momentum had shifted.
"I just thought the way they were moving the ball on us, we needed to keep the ball and control the ball," Fry said. "We’d move the ball deep down what we’d call away from our strength to the split end side, we had success with that, I thought that we could gain one yard on that play. Going into the third quarter, we were able to run that way, so I thought we could get one yard with Oxsen, who is what I think one of the best backs in the state."
Laughing, Fry added, "If we can’t get him to get one yard, I've got problems -- more problems than this."
Said Oxsen of the play, "It’s great momentum. I’m sitting here playing with an injury, the team knows I’m sitting here fighting for them. I’m coming in here, fighting for them, so our line is fighting for me. They know I’m hurt, they know I’m fighting for them. It’s fourth and one, they had great blocking for me, and there’s no better feeling than getting that."
Wild Panthers: It's not a look the Panthers have shown yet this season, but it's not a total surprise to see Oxsen taking direct snap handoffs out of a pistol or shotgun formation like he did today. If South is to match last year's runaway success, they are going to have to ride Oxsen's shoulders all season long.
When the "Wildcat" had its moment in the NFL a few seasons ago, one of its staples involved a receiver motioning across the formation for an end-around option. The Panthers toyed with that play, but also utilized a "full house" pistol formation, lining up two off-set fullbacks side by side next to Oxsen and making "wham" blocks.
The idea behind this is simple: with a back as dynamic and durable as Oxsen, Fry wanted to match 11 on 11.
"It gives us one more person to spread outl," he said. "I mean, if you direct snap it to the quarterback it’s almost like a single wing version that we’re running with it, it just puts one more person out there that they have to be responsible covering for. Hopefully it opens things up a bit, but I thought we’d have a little bit more success than we had with it. We hadn’t shown it all year, but they did a good job on it defensively."
PLYMOUTH SOUTH 21, PLYMOUTH NORTH 14
PS 7 7 0 7 --- 21
PN 0 7 0 7 --- 14
PS - Ryan Donovan 9 pass from Rick Barnhardt (Gordan Fitzgerald kick) 5:43
PS - Dylan Oxsen 90 interception return (Fitzgerald kick) 9:11
PN - Pat Danner 6 pass from Cullin Cosgrove (Aaron Chase kick) 4:14
PS - Oxsen 58 run (Fitzgerald kick) 9:18
PN - Christian Carr 1 run (Chase kick) 6:07