Center High School lineman Maliek Collins figured he was in for a special day when he arrived at school Monday morning to learn he received an offer from Nebraska to play football.
The day only got better from there.
Collins wreaked havoc on Oak Grove’s battered offensive line Monday night, lifting visiting Center to a 21-6 upset in the Class 3, District 7 championship game.
A senior defensive tackle, Collins totaled 13 tackles — six for losses, including five backfield stops in the second half to go along with a sack — to help Center hand Oak Grove its first loss of the season. Center will host Maryville in the Class 3 quarterfinals.
“I felt like I had to make an adjustment because I wasn’t playing like myself in the first half,” Collins said. “Second half, I came out and I was ready to go get the ball and get tackles.”
His defensive play set the tempo for a second half that flipped the narrative of the opening two quarters.
Center, 10-2, took a 7-6 lead into halftime, though Oak Grove had out-gained Center 156 yards to 33 in the half. One mistake prevented Oak Grove, 11-1, from preserving the lead it built on Tyler Brown’s two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Lined up to punt the ball away with a 6-0 advantage, Oak Grove long-snapper Dakota Fish sailed the snap over punter Derrick Dow’s head. The ball stopped on Oak Grove’s own 2-yard line, and Center running back Anthony Eskridge punched in a two-yard score on the next play.
Center scored before it had even gained a first down.
“For a crappy as we played offense, to be up 7-6 at halftime, we felt very fortunate,” Center coach Bryan DeLong said. “We knew if we could come out (in the second half) and establish our running game, we could have some success.”
That’s precisely the way it unfolded. Held to 11 yards in the opening half, Eskridge ran for 102 and another score after the break, while Center controlled the time of possession.
A second-half team for the entire regular season, Oak Grove moved inside the red zone only once after halftime — and that drive ended with Aaron Graham’s fumble at the 4-yard line.
“The punt snap, our inability to score when we got down inside the 10 — that’s the ballgame,” Oak Grove coach Pat Richard said.
Oak Grove’s half only worsened from there. It lost three starting offensive lineman, including its leader, Skyler Hulse, to a variety of injuries.
Graham entering the game with 1,810 rushing yards, but Center focused its defense on shutting down Oak Grove’s talented tailback. Graham gained 30 yards on 17 carries. Seven of his rushing attempts went for negative yardage.
“He’s very talented. He’s their juice,” DeLong said. “We thought if we took him away — their bread and butter — and made them go to their other complementary players, we had our chance. That was our philosophy.”