SOUTH PARIS — Thornton Academy’s offense needed help. Its defense supplied it, creating six Oxford Hills turnovers in Friday’s Class A showdown of unbeaten teams at Gouin Field.

Still, the Vikings extended Thornton to the final minute, before Thornton could claim a 31-23 win.

“Defense had to pull through for sure,” said Thornton outside linebacker Cody Ruff, whose 25-yard fumble return for a score gave Thornton Academy a 24-7 lead at the half. “Those big plays like the fumble recoveries, the interceptions, those make a huge momentum for our team.”

Thornton, ranked No. 1 in the Varsity Maine poll, is 7-0. No. 2 Oxford is 6-1. Should the seeds hold in the final two weeks of the regular season, the two clubs would be on a collision course for what could be a first-class championship game showdown.

Oxford Hills took its opening possession of the game smartly down the field with quarterback Eli Soehren (115 passing yards, 101 rushing yards but three interceptions and two fumbles) completing all three of his passes for 51 yards, including a beautiful 29-yard deep pass into the corner that Grayson Foster hauled in.

Meanwhile, Thornton’s offense was stymied on its first three possessions by a Vikings defense that had allowed 19 points in its first six games.

The momentum flipped when Thornton defensive back Alex St. John anticipated a quick out pass, sliced in front of the receiver and returned it 58 yards for the tying score.

Before the half was out, Thornton forced four more turnovers, including Ruff’s fumble return set up by a sack and strip by Seth Beyea.

Thornton also got a field goal off a fumbled kick return and mixed in one long 13-play, 78-yard drive capped by quarterback Jack Emerson’s 17-yard run up the middle.

“It’s hard to beat anyone, I don’t care who it is, when you have six turnovers,” said Oxford Hills Coach Mark Soehren. “At half, our adjustment was just do what you’ve been taught to do, take what’s in front of you, and we got our running game going.”

Indeed, on its first drive of the second half, Eli Soehren, a powerful 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior gained 47 yards on three carries including a 20-yard burst up the middle for a touchdown cut the lead to 24-14. When a punt snap sailed way over Thornton punter Grady Hanscom’s head for a safety it was 24-16 with 7:26 left in the third quarter.

Oxford Hills appeared on its way to another touchdown drive only to have a Soehren fumble recovered by Thornton Academy’s Tommy Johnson after a big combined hit by Ruff and St. John.

Thornton’s defense made one more key plays when it got a fourth-and-3 stop at Oxford’s 47, leading to a five-minute drive capped by an Emerson 7-yard run for a 31-16 lead.

“We were able to withstand their counter punches in the third quarter and we go that stop on fourth down which was huge and then we went down and scored. Two teams that battled right to the end,” said Thornton Coach Kevin Kezal.

Oxford Hills scored its final touchdown on a 4-yard pass from Soehren to Isaiah Oufiero with 2:28 to play. Thornton recovered the onside kick and Emerson picked up a needed first down to allow TA to run the clock out.

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