FOOTBALL: Plagued by turnovers, Claremore drops opener to Bartlesville

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Sep. 4—Even when things went Claremore's way, the next misfire was never too far behind.

Facing fourth down and a three-score deficit with about six minutes remaining, Braxton Etheridge spun out of a sack and scrambled to his left before tossing a 32-yard touchdown pass to Eli Rodgers.

It was just the spark the Zebras needed, appearing to flip the script on their bad luck that plagued much of last season and seemingly carried over to the 2022 opener.

Unfortunately, that play was only a momentary relief from their struggles. The ensuing extra point went wide left, and though a little more than half the quarter remained (6:04), the offense didn't touch the ball again.

It was a suitable ending for Claremore, which surrendered two defensive touchdowns and four total giveaways while also turning the ball over on downs twice near the red zone in a 20-9 loss to Bartlesville on Friday night at Lantow Field.

"Our red-zone offense was very frustrating tonight," said Zebras coach Jarrett Hurt, who is 1-4 against the Bruins and 3-4 in season openers. "We kept getting down there, but we couldn't capitalize; we couldn't get points. It was very frustrating for us, especially in the first half. We had our opportunities, and we felt like we should have had the lead at halftime, but we didn't."

Claremore's first bout with bad luck came at the 7:58 mark of the first quarter when Bartlesville linebacker Austin Zink scooped up a mishandled snap in the backfield and rumbled 10 yards for a touchdown.

Two possessions later, Etheridge drove the Zebra offense to the Bruins 6-yard line only to be intercepted in the end zone by Brett Eaves on the final play of the period.

The next two drives didn't get much better.

Highlighted by 13- and 10-yard runs by Rodgers and Xander Brito, respectively, Claremore drove 53 yards to the Bartlesville 27 before turning the ball over on downs with 3:40 remaining in the half.

The Zebras managed to get another series before halftime and again had success moving the ball, getting as far as the Bruins 2 following a 36-yard pass from Etheridge to Rodgers.

The drive stalled, though, and they were forced to settle for a Tate Hepler 20-yard field goal and a 6-3 halftime deficit.

The miscues continued piling up in the second half.

On the first play of the third quarter, Etheridge overthrew his intended target and was picked off by Damien Niko, who returned the errant pass 35 yards for a touchdown to increase the Bartlesville lead to 13-3.

Despite the two interceptions, the junior quarterback managed career highs in passing yards and completions with 230 yards on 23-of-38 passing (60.5%).

"That's not exactly how we wanted to open up the second half," Hurt said. "You've got to execute on offense. When they score 14 points on our offense, that makes it very difficult to win ... We obviously gotta clean up our red-zone offense and not turn the ball over as much as we did tonight."

Niko scored again before the third expired, making it a 20-3 spread at the 2:06 mark after catching a 17-yard touchdown strike from Nate Neal. Claremore marched to the Bartlesville 15 on its ensuing possession, but a penalty derailed its momentum and ultimately led to a turnover on downs at the 22.

The Zebras lost a fumble at the 50 just minutes later, sealing their fate.

"The defense kept us in the game all night long," Hurt said. "And the way I see it, we scored nine, and they really scored six. If we just eliminate the mistakes on offense, we win the game."

Hurt's assumption was somewhat accurate, but the Bruins had similar struggles that weren't included in his logic.

For example, Bartlesville running back PJ Wallace — who rushed for 191 yards on 29 carries — ran for a 55-yard gain to the Claremore 34 on the game's first play, but Hepler intercepted Neal three plays later.

That's not all.

The Bruins also lost two fumbles in the red zone — one that was recovered in the end zone in the second quarter and another at the Zebra 15 in the third. Those, too, were game-altering sequences.

Regardless of how the outcome would've changed had no turnovers been committed, Hurt is eager to work on the mistakes next week at practice in preparation for a showdown with Rogers County rival Oologah.

"We've got bright spots," Hurt said. "I know we're gonna get better, and I know our guys want to get better. We were really, really close tonight. It didn't seem like it at times, but we really were really, really close. We did a lot of good things, and we're excited moving forward to see what we can make of this thing.

"We'll come back next week, we'll have a great week of practice and we'll be ready to go next Friday night."