By JOEL COLEMAN
EUPORA – In recent days, Eupora head coach Junior Graham has sung the praises of the French Camp Panthers.
Turns out Graham knew exactly what he was talking about.
Behind the arm of Jessie Hosket, the legs of Jaylon Clemons and six Eupora turnovers, French Camp came to Webster County and pulled off the upset Friday night, downing the Eagles 20-12 in both teams' season opener.
"(French Camp) wanted it more than we did," said Graham. "That was very evident. We didn't do a very good job of protecting the ball and we didn't make stops when we had to. French Camp just beat us."
Hosket threw for 156 yards and two touchdowns for the Panthers, while Clemons ran for 153 yards and a score to pace French Camp to a victory that shocked many of those in attendance in Eupora, including Panthers head coach Nathan Wright.
"I just wanted to be competitive coming in," said Wright. "I felt like if we could be competitive, (winning) might present itself. But to be honest, I'd already submitted that probably we wouldn't win, but I just wanted to play well. And we did play well and managed to hold on."
Holding on is something the Eagles (0-1) failed to do virtually all night long. Eupora's six turnovers all came courtesy of lost fumbles, half of which occurred with the Eagles driving and inside the French Camp 35-yard line.
On two of Eupora's lost fumbles, French Camp (1-0) answered with touchdowns on the ensuing offensive drive.
"We preach to our guys constantly that our number one goal on defense is to score points," said Wright. "(The defense) didn't score any, but the guys realized the only way to score points is to force turnovers. We executed several drills that we work on all the time. You never know if those situations will present themselves, but they did and we executed."
Ironically, it was a turnover that French Camp didn't actually force that turned the tide of the game.
Moments after Eupora's Derrick Jones returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown midway through the first quarter to put the Eagles up 6-0, Clemons answered with a 68-yard touchdown run for French Camp that put the Panthers up 7-6 after the extra point.
When the ensuing kickoff was muffed by Eupora, French Camp recovered and scored again on a two-play drive that culminated with a 45-yard Hosket touchdown pass to Desmond Grayson.
The Panthers missed the extra point, settling for a 13-6 lead, but that advantage proved to be enough as French Camp lived up Graham's previous billing.
"I told everybody going in that (French Camp's) skill guys were as good or better than our skill guys," said Graham.
The Panthers extended their lead in the middle of the third quarter when Hosket again found Grayson to put French Camp up 20-6 after a successful extra point.
Eupora didn't go away though. With 6:08 left in the fourth quarter, the Eagles wrapped up a 49-yard drive with a 10-yard run from Vandy Smith that closed the gap to 20-12.
Eupora wouldn't get the ball back in the contest however, as French Camp ran out the remaining time on the clock, cementing the team's memorable win.
"For this program, this is huge," said Wright. "We have some goals to at least make it past the first round of the playoffs. Three out of the last four years, we've gotten put out by the state champ in the first round of the playoffs and we felt like we needed to strengthen our schedule to start giving us a chance.
"We came (to Eupora) and just wanted to be competitive and hang on the field with them and the fact that we won makes us ecstatic."
Conversely, the mood on the home side of things was anything but jubilant.
Graham now hopes his Eagles can respond in time to right the ship next Friday when the Eagles travel to Noxapater.
"We're going to respond next week," said Graham. "I just don't believe that we're going to turn the ball over six times a night.
"But still, (French Camp) just did a great job. They played hard and aggressive and just beat us."