Jacob Rogers jarred the ball loose with a ringing hit, and JoJo Nichols picked it up and took off the other direction.
Nichols’ 91-yard fumble return was the signature play of a bizarre game Friday, and it propelled Union to a hard-fought, 35-20 win over archrival Jenks in the 16th MidFirst Bank Backyard Bowl before 10,138 spectators Friday in Union-Tuttle Stadium.
Jenks, trailing 21-20 late in the third quarter, had first-and-goal at the Union 2-yard line, poised to score the go-ahead touchdown. But Rogers, a Union senior linebacker, met Jenks running back Kobey Rogers in a head-on collision over the left side, and the ball popped free.
“I guess one of my guys hit (the runner) in the backfield and the ball came loose and I seen it layin’ there and I saw an opportunity and I picked it up,” said Nichols, a senior cornerback who scored his first varsity touchdown on the play.
After the initial hit, the ball appeared to be kicked in the backfield and skittered back to the 9, where Nichols corralled it.
“I was thinking I might get tired, and I was really running hard, but I was able to look at the (video scoreboard) and I saw nobody behind me, so I could take it down a little,” he said.
Union’s lead grew from a point to 28-20 and Rovaughn Banks scored the capper with a 7-yard run with 9:16 left. Banks, a quick, explosive sophomore, is being groomed to play quarterback, but for now, the Redskins want to find other ways to get him the ball.
He also scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter. They were his first varsity TDs.
AJ Green rushed for 158 yards on 12 carries and had TD runs of 62 and 58 yards as the No. 3 Redskins rallied from a 20-7 deficit to win their first game of 2019 after losses to Broken Arrow and Mansfield (Texas) Lake Ridge.
Jenks fell to 1-2. The Trojans opened with a 38-0 win at Mansfield Legacy but followed with a 57-7 loss to Bixby last week.
Both teams are idle next week before opening district play with mammoth battles Sept. 27. Jenks hosts Broken Arrow in 6AI-1 and Union visits Owasso in 6AI-2.
Union had to rally because Jenks running back Will Cox was sensational in a surprise start at quarterback for injured starter Stephen Kittleman.
Cox rushed for 152 yards, passed for 98 more and accounted for two touchdowns. He dominated most of the first half. He ran mostly out of wildcat formation but went 4-for-4 through the air and set up the Trojans’ third with a 69-yard pass down the sideline to Branden Elrod.
“Will played really good for four days of work at quarterback,” Jenks coach Keith Riggs said. “I’m really proud of him and proud of our team. It’s tough to rebound when you’ve lost your quarterback for a week. We played extremely hard, but we had too many big mistakes with turnovers and the long (a 58-yarder by Green to end the first half).”
Kittleman was injured last week against Bixby and watched from the sidelines in street clothes with a brace on his left knee, but Riggs said he would be back in time for Broken Arrow.
“The bye week comes at the perfect time, and Stephen will be fine,” Riggs said. “We wanted to win this game, but in the overall scheme of things, it didn’t mean a lot and it wasn’t in our best interest to risk getting him hurt here.”
The long pass by Cox set up his 6-yard scoring toss to Elijah Williams and the Trojans led 20-7, but the long run by Green tightened the score to 20-14 and the Trojans were done in by their own mistakes.
A bad snap on fourth down gave the Redskins a short field to start the third quarter and set up Banks for a 1-yard TD that put Union ahead 21-20. That came after Union quarterback JD Geneva converted third-and-6 from the Trojans 13 with a 12-yard pass to Makhai Belt.
From there, Jenks held the ball for 11 plays and put together five first downs, reaching the 2 on a 14-yard run by Cox. But the Trojans fumbled on the next play, and Nichols’ fumble return changed the game.