BOGART — A year removed from winning its second straight Region 8-AA championship, Jefferson finds itself in unfamiliar territory: looking up in the standings.
The Dragons dropped their second straight game Friday, a 35-22 loss to North Oconee to fall to 0-2 in Region 8B-AA.
North Oconee, however, already feels like it is in control of the subregion. Given the caliber of the Titans' last two opponents, it is hard to argue that point. Last week, North Oconee (5-0, 2-0 Region 8B-AA) beat Hart County, a team picked by many to win the region.
"We have a chance to continue to steer this bus in this parade," North Oconee coach Terry Tuley said. "There are still some people in the first few floats. But we have to win every game."
Three of the Titans last four opponents - Commerce, Hart County and Jefferson - are regulars in the playoffs. North Oconee beat each by at least two scores and scored at least 28 points in each game.
"We are feeling really good," senior Lane Thompson said. "We had a pretty sloppy game defensively, but we are going to get everything worked out. We are feeling like we definitely have a shot this year."
The Titans circled three opponents they would have to beat to win the top spot in the subregion - Hart County, Jefferson (2-3, 0-2) and Elbert County. They don't play the Blue Devils until the last game of the regular season.
After a first half composed mostly of defense, both offenses started to pick up, as they combined for 23 points in the third quarter.
Jefferson recovered a dropped kickoff on North Oconee's 15-yard line and turned it into a 27-yard field goal by Asher Orr. Each team scored a touchdown on the next three possessions.
North Oconee used a 55-yard run by Jace Brannon and a 10-yard run by Thompson to distance itself from Jefferson. The Dragons struck with an 8-yard pass from Bryant Shirreffs to Hoytes Damons for their only touchdown of the third quarter.
"You are talking about a good football team that is playing without a few bullets," Tuley said of the Dragons. "Their halftime strategy worked and congratulations to them. I told our offense in the beginning that we can't sit on our hands and expect our defense to pitch a shutout."
Jefferson was able to pull within six points of the lead following a 6-yard touchdown run by Shirreffs in the fourth quarter to make the score 26-22.
On the ensuing kickoff, Thompson zigged and zagged his way through the Dragons' special teams for a 91-yard touchdown return.
"I wasn't expecting the ball because they had been kicking the ball short and out of bounds," Thompson said. "There were three really good blocks and once I got past that, there were only a few guys I had to make miss."
Thompson capped off his night with a rally-killing interception on the Dragons' last possession. He finished the game with three total touchdowns, two rushing, and 98 yards on 16 carries.
The senior received support from backup running back Jace Brannon, who finished the game with 97 yards and a touchdown on six carries. North Oconee quarterback Blake Gaubert completed 7 of 8 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
"I'm just proud of the way our boys didn't stop fighting," Jefferson coach T. McFerrin said. "They played from behind all night long. (North Oconee) has a fine football team. We just couldn't tackle No. 8 (Thompson)."
Jefferson found most of its success on offense through the air. Shirreffs completed 11 of 21 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown, but the sophomore did have three interceptions.
He also led the team in rushing with 44 yards on 15 carries. The Dragons rushed for just 118 yards while North Oconee rushed for 255.
"We are just still making too many mistakes," McFerrin said. "We are containing when we are supposed to contain. We are trying hard, but we have a lot of new guys that are making too many mistakes."
On North Oconee's first touchdown of the game, Thompson took a toss sweep to the left for a 46-yard score. He had to tip-toe the sideline around the 30-yard line and break a pair of tackles while cutting inside to reach the end zone.
Jefferson turned an interception by Kyle Mosley to start the second quarter into its first points of the game. After the turnover, the Dragons completed a seven-play, 54-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown run by Chris Jackson.
The Titans responded to Jefferson's first touchdown of the game with a 14-play, 74-yard drive that took a little more than eight minutes off the clock.