Grass and dirt is not Oakton halfback Keith Payne's preferred surface. He likes rocks and mud.

Last night, on a messy field at Herndon, Payne rumbled for 174 yards and three touchdowns as the 19th-ranked Cougars firmly entrenched themselves in the Virginia AAA Northern Region Division 6 playoff picture with a 31-14 Concorde District win.

"I like this, I'm used to this," said Payne, whose 67-yard scoring run tied the game in the third quarter and 16-yard bolt gave his team the lead for good in the fourth. "This field is just like our field. We practice on this. We're used to this."

The white yardage lines on the soggy field lost most of their visibility by the third quarter, but that didn't prevent Payne and backfield mate Taylor Naleppa (18 carries, 94 yards) from finding their way. Oakton (6-2, 3-2) scored 24 unanswered points in the second half as the Hornets (5-3, 1-3) managed only one first down.

Hornets Coach Tommy Meier said the loss all but eliminated his team from playoff contention in the deep, talented Concorde, which is expected to place three teams in the postseason. Other district teams in the race are Westfield, Robinson and Centreville.

"This was like a playoff week for us in practice," Cougars Coach Joe Thompson said. "And next week will be, too. We need two wins to get in for sure."

Oakton senior defensive end Jeremy Rudolph said it was not hard for his team to get motivated last night, given its precarious playoff position.

He provided the key stop of the game, dropping running back Chris Thompson for a one-yard loss on a fourth-and-two try from the Herndon 42 with 5 minutes 51 seconds left in the game and the Cougars leading, 21-14.

"When everyone of our players does what they are supposed to do on defense, no one gains a yard on us," he said. "We trust each other."

"Unlike last week, we were able to control the ball," Oakton's Thompson said, citing his team's recipe for success involved tough yards from Naleppa and big plays by the 6-foot-3, 222-pound Payne.

Last year, Payne scored four touchdowns in a district-clinching win over Herndon. Last night, Payne displayed awesome power with his game-tying run, holding off a Hornet defensive back with a stiff-arm for the final 15 yards of his run.

"This kind of field condition is more conducive for a team like Oakton," Meier said. "[Payne] is a big, strong runner. Our players are more successful using deception and cuts. Oakton just ran between the tackles all night, and, keeping the ball so much, they wore us down."

Payne's go-ahead touchdown came with 9:03 left in the game as he broke over left tackle to find open field for most of his 16-yard run. Donald Murphy added a 33-yard field goal with 2:32 to play and Justin White returned a fumble on the ensuing kickoff runback to pad the lead.