JAMES Roberts struck a stoppage-time equaliser as Oxford United stopped the rot with a draw at home to Exeter City.

The Grecians looked to have inflicted a fourth straight home defeat on the U's when Alex Nicholls put them ahead three minutes from time.

It was tough on United, who had bossed the first half and led through Danny Hylton's 14th goal of the season.

But they were pulled back by Arron Davies's shot late in the half and City appeared to have picked their hosts' pockets late on.

It looked bleak for United, until Roberts came up with a precious late strike to earn a draw.

A point was not what United would have wanted, but it was a lot better than it threatened to be just moments earlier.

In response to the previous week's 3-2 defeat to Southend United, U's boss Michael Appleton made five changes.

Patrick Hoban was handed a first start and Josh Ashby came in for his senior debut.

Jon Meades, Danny Rose and Josh Ruffels were also recalled, while Roberts returned on the bench.

It meant a switch in formation back to 4-2-3-1 and after a cagey opening the home side went on to control the first half.

Both sides have a reputation for passing football, but the first opening came via a long clearance from United goalkeeper Ryan Clarke.

Scot Bennett misjudged the bounce and Callum O'Dowda leapt on the chance, running into the box and pulling back for Hoban, whose shot was blocked after the ball got caught under the striker's feet.

O'Dowda and Meades combined well on United's left, causing problems to City's defence.

There was no surprise when the first goal came from that flank, on 18 minutes.

O'Dowda breezed past a statuesque Bennett and when his cross took a deflection it fell perfectly for Hylton to lash in at the back post.

The threat of O'Dowda alarmed City boss Paul Tisdale so much he substituted Bennett shortly afterwards, bringing on the more mobile Christian Ribeiro.

United looked comfortable and Ashby rose to the occasion superbly.

Composed on the ball, the 18-year-old also assumed most of the set piece duties, which were a consistent threat.

One corner was unconvincingly punched clear by City goalkeeper James Hamon and after Ashby returned the ball to the danger area, Johnny Mullins fired narrowly over the crossbar as the confidence began to return for the home side.

City's attacking threat had consisted largely of long balls forward, which Mullins and Jake Wright handled with little fuss.

But eight minutes before the break a quick free-kick launched by Craig Woodman was flicked back to the edge of the box by a combination of Wright and Graham Cummins.

It fell invitingly for Davies, who found the corner of the net for an equaliser.

The shot was the only attempt on goal the visitors managed in the opening 45 minutes, but it ensured they went in on level terms.

On the stroke of half-time O'Dowda was fouled inches outside the box and Ashby's free-kick was headed behind.

From the set piece, Ashby almost curled straight into the net, but City held on to reach the break all square.

It was a scoreline the visitors did not merit on the balance of play, although they began the second half brightly.

Ribeiro shot over the crossbar and they put the ball in the box more in the opening five minutes after the restart than in the entire first half.

United took time to get going, but they started to find a rhythm as the home fans paid tribute to supporter Keith Pasfield with a minute's applause in the 55th minute.

Hamon spilled a cross from Rose under pressure from Hylton, but no-one in yellow could profit from the mistake.

Just after the hour mark good work from Hylton and Rose almost saw Long bulldoze his way through on goal.

The defender's shot was turned behind for a corner, from which the ball fell to Ruffels, who blazed wildly off target.

Roberts was introduced midway through the half, just a fortnight after tweaking a hamstring against Dagenham & Redbridge.

The young striker quickly tested Hamon with a curling shot after Hylton and Hoban had combined smartly. The goalkeeper did not take it cleanly, but in the process of following up Hylton committed a foul.

United probed for a winner in the closing stages, but three minutes from time they conceded out of nowhere.

Clarke had to make a smart save to turn a shot from Tom Nichols around the post, but from the corner Nicholls looped a header into the net.

It was a sickener and many fans headed to the exit shaking their heads in disbelief.

United appeared to be heading for a fourth straight home defeat, but those heading for the car park missed a stunning strike two minutes into stoppage time.

Roberts found half a yard of space 20 yards out and with his weaker left foot unleashed a curling shot which went in off the post.

It rescued the home side, who must find a way to stop a nasty habit off throwing away leads at home.

Oxford Utd: Clarke, Long, Mullins, Wright, Meades, Ashby, Ruffels (Burns 90), Hylton, Rose, O'Dowda (Roberts 66), Hoban.

Unused subs: Crocombe, Humphreys, Whing, Dunkley, Campbell.

Exeter City: Hamon, Bennett (Ribeiro 21), Moore-Taylor, Oakley, Woodman, Davies, Noble (Butterfield 82), Sercombe, Nicholls, Nichols, Cummins (Wheeler 70).

Unused subs: Pym, Keohane, Tillson, Jay.

Attendance: 6,791 (512 visitors).

Referee: Graham Horwood (Bedfordshire).