Jace Hightower moved with the speed of a real zebra.
Making his first appearance since dislocating his left elbow in a scrimmage on Aug. 29, the senior running back — using great footwork and agility — eluded Sapulpa defenders with ease, zig-zagging his way 33 yards for a touchdown after catching a slip screen pass from Charlie Murdock.
The score gave Claremore a 17-7 lead with 5:15 remaining in the first half, and to Hightower, everything was going according to plan.
“I was feeling good,” the Air Force commit said. “I thought it was going exactly how I thought it would. That’s how I planned on it going, and that’s how I thought the game was going to go.
“I was feeling confident.”
It was his only catch of the night, but he rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries as well.
However, Hightower wasn’t the only future Division I athlete gracing the recently resurfaced turf at Lantow Field on Friday night.
TCU commit Eli Williams, who is perhaps the best dual-threat quarterback in the state, asserted his will the rest of the way, shredding the Zebra defense for 244 yards rushing and four touchdowns while leading the Chieftains to a 49-24 victory.
Williams, who scored on runs of 5, 43, 28 and 12 yards, averaged nearly 13.6 yards per carry.
He also threw for an additional 61 yards on 5-of-10 passing.
As a result, Sapulpa outscored Claremore, 42-7, in the final 28 and a half minutes. The Chieftains carried a 21-17 lead into halftime.
Claremore coach Jarrett Hurt said the future Horned Frog simply took over the game, and there was nothing his defense could do to slow down the 6-foot-5, 225-pound athlete.
“That’s what bigtime players do,” Hurt said. “He’s going to the Big 12 Conference for a reason. We had all the momentum at that point, and we were just trying to get out of the half, but he took the ballgame over and scored 14 points right there.
“After that, we could never get back on top.”
Williams answered Hightower’s score with consecutive runs of 30 and 43 yards on Sapulpa’s ensuing possession, the latter of which resulted in a touchdown with 4:21 left in the half.
Feeding off the momentum of a Chieftains defensive stop on the next drive, he relied on his legs once more for a 28-yard score that gave Sapulpa the lead for good.
“The momentum changed really quickly,” Hightower said.
However, Quentin Skinner managed to slow Williams down on the Chieftains’ second drive of the second half, intercepting a pass and returning it to the Sapulpa 7-yard line.
It was Skinner’s second turnover of Williams, having recovered a fumble from him in the second quarter.
Skinner, who finished with three receptions for 38 yards, made a diving catch in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown shortly following that recovery, giving Claremore its first lead at 10-7.
A 3-yard touchdown burst from Hightower three plays after the interception brought Claremore to within four at 28-24 at the 6:51 mark in the third quarter, but the Zebras wouldn’t score again.
Williams responded with another big run, rumbling 61 yards to the Claremore 5-yard line, where running back Marcus Esparza scored from on the next play.
Esparza got his fair share of touches as well, finishing with the same number of carries as Williams (18) for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
His first score came on a 1-yard run with 10:27 remaining in the third.
Williams’ fourth rushing touchdown, a 12-yard scamper, came after a blocked punt gave Sapulpa possession at the Zebras 30-yard line with less than six minutes to play.
While the Chieftains wore down the Zebras defense with its potent rushing attack, Claremore seemingly abandoned the strategy, opting to counter with the air raid.
Hightower tallied only five caries in the second half, totaling 34 yards.
Sapulpa limited Murdock and company to only 137 yards in the second half. The Zebras finished the first half with 278 yards.
Claremore’s offensive struggles culminated with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter when Ja Mario Jones snagged a tipped ball and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown.
Coincidentally, it was at that exact mark (3:30) against Bartlesville in Week 1 when Claremore sealed its 40-28 win with an interception of its own.
For Murdock, it was his second thrown pick-six of the season. The first, which took place against Bruins on Sept. 6, was returned 50 yards as well.
The second-year starter threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-33 passing. His completion percentage dropped from 91.7 percent to 42.9 in the second half.
In addition to his yardage dipping in the final 24 minutes — managing only 90 yards on nine completions — Murdock was sacked four times in the fourth quarter.
“I think they knew we were throwing the ball every down, and we lost our balance,” Hurt said. “We probably should’ve run the ball some more than we did, and they were teeing off on us.
“We felt like their defense was giving us some things we could take advantage of, and obviously it didn’t work out that way.”
Dylan Kedzior led the Zebras with 117 yards receiving on five receptions.
DeShawn Kinnard neared the century mark as well with six catches for 84 yards. Brooks Sherl caught five passes for 49 yards.
Things won’t get any easier for the Zebras next week, for they must shift their focus from one Division I talent to another in Edison running back Sevion Morrison.
Morrison, who is committed to Nebraska, broke the Edison school record for career yards — set by Spencer Tillman — with a 95-yard, two-touchdown performance on only five carries in a 67-0 win over Memorial on Friday night.
His current numbers — 4,087 yards — bested Tillman’s mark of 4,009.
Sapulpa defeated the Eagles in Week 1, 21-13.
“We just gotta keep grinding because next week we leave the Big 12 Conference and TCU for the Big 10 Conference and Nebraska,” Hurt said. “We know what (Morrison) brings to the table because we’ve played him several times.
“We gotta go back to work and get ready to play Edison.”