Thornton Academy’s Henry Lausier comes up with an interception on a long pass over the middle by Oxford Hills quarterback Eli Soehren during an Oct. 15 game in South Paris. Brewster Burns/Sun Journal

The Oxford Hills football team has a clear mission heading into the Class A state championship game Saturday against Thornton Academy: Hold on to the football.

The Vikings turned the ball over six times (three interceptions, three fumbles) in a 31-23 regular-season loss to Thornton in Paris on Oct. 15. Another interception was wiped out by a defensive holding call away from the play. Despite all that, the Vikings had a 291-232 edge in yardage and were still in the game late in the fourth quarter. Thornton needed to pick up two first downs to kill off the final 2:28 after recovering an onside kick.

But that doesn’t mean Thornton was flawless. Its deficiencies were not as glaring, but the Trojans know they need to play better to win their fifth Gold Ball since 2012.

“We had a lot of breakdowns offensively,” said Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal.

Oxford Hills (8-1) and Thornton Academy (10-0) will play for the title at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Vikings are looking for their first state championship.

“It’s going to be a dogfight all the way through,” said Thornton senior quarterback Jack Emerson, who rushed for 95 yards and Thornton’s two offensive touchdowns in the regular-season game.

“Their run game is strong. Their pass game is strong,” Emerson added. “Their defense is a phenomenal defense. It’s a good matchup, for sure.”

Based on the first Thornton-Oxford Hills game, keep an eye on these three areas to determine which team is making the needed adjustments.

TURNOVER BATTLE

Two of the Oxford Hills turnovers were returned for touchdowns — a 58-yard interception return by Alex St. John and a 25-yard fumble return by Cody Ruff after a strip sack by Seth Beyea. A fumbled kickoff return set up an Oskari Tapola field goal.

“I think in a lot of games, we’ve had we’ve been able to rely on athleticism and our competitiveness to just make plays,” said Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren. “But against a team like Thornton, you can’t force that. They’re just as athletic and they have the will to win as well.”

Soehren said he’s tried to streamline the approach this week, limiting the reads his junior quarterback (and son) Eli Soehren will have to make. He’s also stressed the importance of taking what Thornton allows. Two of Soehren’s interceptions (and the one overturned) were on deep throws.

“Every once in awhile, take a shot, but we we have to take things that are in front of us,” Mark Soehren said.

Lincoln Merrill, right, of Oxford Hills drives into Thornton Academy’s Bryant Nsengiyumva during an Oct. 15 game in Paris, won by Thornton, 31-23. Brewster Burns

Thornton had no turnovers in the first meeting. But the Trojans were hurt by turnovers in the 2019 state championship game. Riding a 22-game winning streak with one turnover all season, they coughed up the ball five times in a 34-21 loss to Bonny Eagle.

“Turnovers are a key factor in football,” said Thornton inside linebacker Mason Paulin, the team’s leading tackler. “When you can just take the ball away and then drive down the field and score, you can’t beat it.”

KICKING AND RETURN GAME

Thornton often has a significant advantage on kickoff and punt returns. Thornton is averaging 30.3 yards on kickoff returns and 27.1 yards on punt returns, with five total touchdowns. In a 28-12 semifinal win against Scarborough last weekend, a 49-yard punt return by Isaiah Jones was a key play as Thornton outscored the Red Storm 21-0 after halftime.

“Going against Thornton, it’s a point of emphasis to limit those plays,” Mark Soehren said. “They’ve been effective on special teams for a long time. Before we were even good.”

Oxford Hills only punted once against Thornton (with no return). The Vikings stymied Thornton’s kickoff returns with a combination of deep kicks to the corner by Eli Soehren and excellent coverage, resulting in Thornton drives starting at its own 21, 19 and 18.

“Those returns are energy boosters for us,” said senior Anthony Jones. “They’re big-time for us and we’re good at them. It just comes down to hitting our assignments, so it takes all 11 of us.”

Solid returns obviously shorten the field — something Thornton needs to do.

“It’s hard to drive the field on them,” Kezal said of Oxford Hills. “They’re good defensively. They run to the ball well. They tackle well. So you need some explosive plays. Fortunately, last time we got the explosive plays on defense.”

CAN THORNTON DIVERSIFY ITS OFFENSE?

Typically, jet sweep runs to Anthony Jones help loosen up opposing defenses, along with some quick passing hookups. Jones carried four times for 16 yards against Oxford Hills, and his one catch was a no-gainer. Three other Thornton jet sweeps resulted in 4 yards and a holding call.

“The perimeter run game is huge for us. (Assistant coach Steve) Stinson says all the time that it’s the key to our offense, so we have to establish that on Saturday,” Anthony Jones said.

“We wanted to limit their jet sweeps and their runs to the outside. They’re just too fast. Clearly that was a focus,” Mark Soehren said, noting the trade-off was Emerson’s ability to get tough yardage up the middle.

Thornton didn’t get much through the air, either, with Emerson completing 7 of 13 passes for 72 yards.

“We’ll for sure have to be able to do a little bit of everything to beat them,” Emerson said. “They’re a good team.”

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