North Oconee 16, Oconee County 13

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

WATKINSVILLE - Oconee County’s quarterback was intercepted four times by the same player Friday night, and he had choice words for him after the game.

“You’re the best dang football player I’ve ever played against,’’ Mac Ricks said as he tapped North Oconee’s Khalil Barnes on the shoulder pad while walking toward the locker room.

That’s the essence of this intense but respectful rivalry, won this time by North Oconee 16-13. Both are ranked in the top five of their classifications, and they sit only 4.5 miles apart on Hog Mountain Road. Ricks, a junior, is Oconee County’s new starting quarterback, but Barnes is no stranger to him.

“It’s big win because of how close we are,’’ Barnes said. “We’ve played with and against them since age 6. We’ll probably see them after the game out at a restaurant. After three years of losing to them, we have bragging rights.’'

With Oconee County’s side blue and North Oconee’s visiting side red, both stands were full . The bands, typically playing from the stands, were moved to the end zones to make room for the spillover crowd.

Barnes set in motion the victory when he returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown and a 16-0 lead with 1:16 left in the first half. He finished it with an interception with 45 seconds left, though the credit should go to North Oconee’s relentless rush, which forced Ricks’ hopeless prayer on fourth-and-40.

Barnes finished with 104 yards from scrimmage on 13 touches (nine rushes, four receptions) while primarily playing receiver on offense, though he also appeared at running back and wildcat quarterback. He also had a tackle for a loss on defense, the position he’s projected to play in college.

“He has a spirit and a physicality about him,’' North Oconee coach Tyler Aurandt said of Barnes. “With the way he makes plays, everybody leans on him for big moments.’'

North Oconee, ranked No. 2 in Class 4A after reaching the 2021 semifinals, took a 7-0 lead on its first drive, going 73 yards on 10 plays. Barnes had a 25-yard run and receptions for 13 and 20 yards from Max Wilson, one that converted a third-and-8. Dominic Elder scored on a 2-yard run.

Barnes’ pick six came on a second-and-22 when Ricks was pressed and probably should’ve protected the ball. North Oconee held Oconee County 73 total yards in the first half.

Oconee County, ranked No. 5 in Class 3A, got back in the game late in the third quarter when a North Oconee receiver dropped a pass that was ruled behind the passer, resulting in a fumble that the Warriors’ Dylan Manders recovered at the North Oconee 20.

Manders scored three plays later on a 17-yard pass from Ricks on third-and-7. Barnes intercepted the two-point attempt. Interceptions on conversions don’t count in official statistics, so Barnes’ official total was three.

In the fourth quarter, Ricks showed extraordinary elusiveness to will his team down the field, hitting passes of 21 and 18 yards and scrambling on runs of 22 and 26 yards, one on a third-and-10 to the Oconee County 9. Whit Weeks, a linebacker/running back committed to LSU, scored from the 3 with 5:20 left.

Oconee County forced a three and out and got the ball back at its 24 with a final shot. The Warriors got a first down on a 14-yard Ricks scramble, but the game finished with four straight incompletions against heavy rush, one that forced a grounding penalty that essentially iced it.

“We talked about the game coming down to the fourth quarter and the final minutes, and that’s exactly what happened,’’ Aurandt told his huddled players after the game. “I couldn’t be prouder of how we finished it.’’

Ricks rushed for 107 yards on 14 carries, mostly on pass plays that forced him to scramble, but with little time to throw, he was 5-of-21 passing for 76 yards.

North Oconee 7-9-0-0 – 16

Oconee County 0-0-6-7 – 13

First quarter

NO – Dominic Elder Jr. 2 run (J.J. Poole kick), 7:46

Second quarter

NO – Poole 26 FG, 2:32

NO – Khalil Barnes 29 interception (kick failed), 0:45

Third quarter

O - Dylan Manders 17 pass from Mac Ricks (pass failed), 1:40

Fourth quarter

O - Whit Weeks 3 run (Bo Gaines kick), 5:20