A 28-yard field goal by Neosho kicker Jalen Timberlake capped a 66-yard drive and brought the Wildcats within four points of host Carthage on homecoming night at K.E. Baker Stadium.
But the next 10 minutes, 41 seconds of the game turned into a nightmare for the visitors, and provided an early reason for the Tigers to celebrate, as Carthage took a 26-point lead into the half and rolled to a 48-17 win Friday night.
The win moves Carthage to 3-2 on the season and 2-1 in conference play, while Neosho drops to 0-5.
The Tigers’ defense, which allowed at least 32 points in each of the season’s first three games, has now allowed a combined 31 points against Ozark and Neosho in consecutive weeks, and the Wildcats trailed 48-10 before adding a late touchdown with 2:36 left in the game.
And the same defense that forced just one turnover in all of the first three games has now forced five in the last two, and two interceptions and a fumble recovery against Neosho led to three touchdowns for the Tigers.
“They did a fantastic job,” Carthage head coach Jon Guidie said of the team’s defense. “They were directly responsible for three scores tonight, and any time you can score defensively your chances of winning go through the roof.”
The first, a fumble by Neosho’s Justin McKee at the Wildcats’ 24-yard line, was scooped up by Carthage sophomore Alex Derryberry and returned for a touchdown with 5:21 left in the first quarter, and a Gabe Franklin-to-EJ Morgan pass for the two-point conversion made it 14-0.
That came barely a minute after Franklin, a senior, passed to junior Jesse Martini for a 13-yard touchdown after the Tigers forced the Wildcats to punt and took over at the Neosho 34 following the punt return and a personal foul penalty.
The extra point was blocked, though, and Carthage led 6-0.
But following Derryberry’s score, Neosho got the ball at the 50 after Carthage was flagged for a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff. It was one of eight Carthage penalties in the game, while Neosho was flagged 12 times for 100 yards.
The Wildcats quickly moved to the Carthage 3, but were stopped on three-straight runs for no gain, setting up a fourth-and-goal, when quarterback Austin Hailey passed to Nathan Moser for the score, making it 14-7 with 1:35 left in the quarter.
After a Carthage punt, Neosho drove from its own 23 to the Carthage 10, setting up another first-and-goal. Hailey got one yard on first down, threw incomplete on second down, and was sacked by Carthage senior Anthony Turk on third down for a two-yard loss, but Timberlake’s field goal with 7:54 left in the half cut the Carthage lead to 14-10.
Page 2 of 3 - It didn’t last long, though; Carthage drove 68 yards in less than three minutes and scored when senior receiver Kennan Harrison took a handoff and scored from three yards out with 5:02 left in the half. Harrison earlier kept the drive alive on third-and-nine from the Carthage 33, catching a 27-yard pass over the middle.
Carthage lined up to kick the extra point, but faked the kick and Franklin passed to Martini for two points to take a 22-10 lead.
Neosho took over at its own 33, and McKee rushed to the Carthage 12 on first down. Hailey rushed to the 8, then a false-start penalty moved Neosho to the 13 before Davin Bentz rushed to the 10. An incompletion on third down set up fourth-and-8, and Hailey again threw incomplete to give the Tigers possession deep in their own territory with 3:12 left before the half.
Cameron Priester took a screen pass and ran to the 38, but a holding penalty moved the Tigers back to their own 7. Franklin passed to Morgan to the 41, Priester rushed to the 47, and three plays later Franklin connected with Morgan again, who broke a tackle and raced 49 yards for a touchdown. Another reception by Martini for the two-point conversion made it 30-10 with 1:39 remaining.
“We went on a nice drive there,” Guidie said. “We went over 90 yards and I was happy to see that. That’s something we haven’t had to do yet is score in a hurry at the end of a half or a game.”
Neosho moved to the 42 on its next possession, then on third-and-10, Hailey’s pass was intercepted by Carthage junior D’Anglelo Poole, who returned it all the way to the Neosho goal line. Priester punched it in and Carthage led 36-10 at the half.
Carthage got the ball to start the third quarter, and Morgan caught a 34-yard pass on the first offensive play. Franklin then passed to Harrison for a 35-yard touchdown, making the score 42-10 with 11:16 left in the third.
“We came out after halftime and we didn’t want to waste any time,” Guidie said. “We wanted to get another score quickly to get that clock rolling.”
Neosho got the ball at its own 19 and got as far as the Carthage 42, but again the Carthage defense came up big, as junior linebacker Alex Kennedy picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown, giving Carthage a 48-10 advantage with 9:13 left in the game and putting in place a running clock.
Neosho’s score at the 2:36 mark was enough to stop the running clock, but little else.
Kennedy and Poole led the defense with nine tackles and an interception apiece, and Poole also broke up a pass. Jost Tiffany forced a fumble, and Turk finished with two sacks and a pass breakup.
Page 3 of 3 - “It feels real good,” Turk said. “We had a slow start, losing those two games, but it feels good to get back above .500 and we have confidence we’re going to keep winning games.”
Turk said the difference in the defensive play by the Tigers started after allowing 63 points at Carl Junction in week two.
“After that Carl game, the coaches came out and they did their job,” he said. “They were after us. “We knew we had to fix some stuff. I give all the credit to the coaches on that one.”
And who deserves the credit for the turnaround, according to Guidie?
“I’m going to say the players,” he said. “The players have responded. They’re playing hard, playing with a lot of effort, they’re competing. As long as they keep doing those things they’re going to continue to improve and hopefully we can make a run.”