In Bill Blankenship’s lifetime of special quarterback performances in the biggest games, where would he rank Owasso senior Mason Willingham’s brilliance on Friday?
In a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it Class 6AI semifinal at Broken Arrow, Willingham led the Rams to a 50-47 victory over previously unbeaten Union.
At the end of a three-hour, 41-minute rematch of Union’s 35-17 regular-season win over the Rams, Willingham had 303 total yards (162 passing, 141 rushing). He ran for four touchdowns, including the game-winner, and passed for two more.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a dual-threat guy who could do that type of stuff,” said Blankenship, Owasso’s sixth-year head coach. “I’ve had guys who could lead teams and be great quarterbacks and all that, but the ability to do the physical stuff like (Willingham) does — I hadn’t had one like that.”
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When it was mentioned that Willingham flourished in spite of having been hit hard on several plays, Blankenship said, “It’s like we played two games almost. That’s how it felt. But (from a health standpoint), we’re pretty good for this time of year.”
Everyone wants to play at this time of year, but only a precious few teams are still practicing with a purpose.
After it seemed in September that the 2022 season might be miserable for the Rams, Owasso followed its 1-4 start with an eight-game win streak. The Rams have arrived at the pinnacle of Oklahoma high school football — a state championship game.
In this Friday’s 7 p.m. 6AI finale, the Rams and Bixby clash at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Chad Richison Stadium.
Blankenship watched the live stream of Bixby’s 28-14 semifinal triumph over Jenks.
“Clearly,” he said, “Bixby was locked in.”
In an opener that was heavily hyped because it was Bixby’s first game as a 6AI competitor, the Spartans defeated Owasso 49-14 on Aug. 25. The QuikTrip-sponsored Battle of The ’Burbs was seen by a crowd of better than 21,000 at the University of Tulsa’s H.A. Chapman Stadium. It was during the second period of that game that Owasso blue-chip receiver Cole Adams sustained a serious shoulder injury.
Bixby bids for what would be its eighth state title in nine years. With Blankenship as the head man, the Owasso program was the 6AI champ in 2017 and 2019. He also coached Union to titles in 2002, 2004 and 2005, and Fayetteville High School to an Arkansas state title in 2016.
Before his 2022 Rams would face favored Union in the semifinals, Blankenship used a painful memory as a motivational tool. He reminded his players of what happened in 2021: that they won 42-3 over Broken Arrow during the regular season, then lost 41-40 to the Tigers at the quarterfinal level of the playoffs.
Blankenship preached to his players that they could do to Union this season what Broken Arrow did to Owasso last year.
“Our kids are believing right now,” Blankenship said on Saturday.
While Willingham was tremendous in the semifinal upset of the Redhawks, so many others had winning moments. J’Kharri Thomas, Anthony Hills, the offensive line, Jake Adams and the entire defense — if they hadn’t been good all night, Owasso doesn’t win.
Thomas in particular — wow. As the smallest of all participants, he made some of the bigger plays. On a few of his touches of the football, he made the type of plays that Brennan and Braylin Presley used to make at Bixby.
Thomas is a wide receiver who, because five Owasso running backs were injured this season, has been used also in the backfield.
“You see this with the little guy (running back Deuce Vaughn) at K-State: sometimes, when you have a little guy back there, they’re harder to find,” Blankenship said. “J’Kharri can be our primary receiver and then swing back into the backfield and carry the ball. That’s a lot of fun for us.”
Owasso’s ball-control offense wound up with 81 total plays. Union finished with only 61. Through four quarters of play, the Redhawks had only 42 offensive snaps.
Willingham provided uplifting playmaking and leadership. As he responded with the best night of his career, it inspired teammates to make the plays that added up ultimately to a resounding upset.