Visiting Ozark spoiled the opening of Carthage's David Haffner Stadium, beating the Tigers 26-20 on Friday night in the football season opener.
In 12 games in 2016, the Carthage Tigers finished with a plus-23 turnover margin while fumbling the ball just six times.
But three fumbles in Friday’s season opener and some miscues on special teams proved costly in a 26-20 loss to visiting Ozark in the first game at the brand new David Haffner Stadium.
After leading 13-9 at halftime, the Tigers found themselves trailing 26-13 with just 2:28 remaining in the game.
Quarterback Zeke Sappington and receiver Jayden Morgan, both juniors, connected on three receptions on Carthage’s ensuing possession – the third resulting in a 35-yard touchdown after Morgan caught a deep ball and ran 12 yards for the score, diving just inside the right pylon. Johnathan Lancaster’s extra point made it a six-point game with 55.3 seconds left to play.
Carthage then attempted an onside kick and junior Colton Winder recovered when the ball bounced right into his arms at midfield. An official even signaled it was Carthage’s possession, but seconds later the decision was reversed and Ozark twice took a knee to end it.
“He came over and said we touched it prior to getting 10 yards,” said Carthage coach Jon Guidie.
“It’s a really good football team you’re playing against and we knew that,” Guidie later said. “One thing we could not afford was to turn the ball over and we did.”
The first turnover halted Carthage’s first possession of the game. In just four plays the Tigers went from their own 17 to the 50 before Ozark recovered a fumble at the Carthage 42-yard line.
The visitors twice converted on fourth down and scored from the 2 with 5:49 in the first quarter to lead 7-0.
Carthage answered with a 13-play, 84-yard drive and scored on a goal line plunge by senior Clay Newman. The extra point was no good.
In the second quarter, after Sappington hit Dillon Lancaster for a big gain into Ozark territory, the Tigers had possession at the 15, but a fumbled snap gave the ball back to Ozark.
Carthage’s defense held and forced Ozark to punt from its 31. The snap sailed over the punter’s head and was picked up by Newman, who ran in for a touchdown to give Carthage a 13-7 lead.
Later in the half the Tigers lined up to punt from the 11, but a low kick drilled the back of a lineman and bounced into the end zone where Sappington fell on it for a safety, at least preventing Ozark from scoring six.
Carthage drove to the Ozark 23 late in the second quarter but couldn’t score, turning the ball over on downs after an incompletion.
The visitors opened the third quarter with a 15-play scoring drive to pull ahead 16-13. Carthage followed with a drive into Ozark territory but again turned the ball over on downs when Corben Pugh was stopped for a yard gain on a fourth-and-three from the 29.
The Tigers fumbled a pitch on the first play of their next possession, giving Ozark the ball at the Carthage 31. Ozark scored at the 10:35 mark of the fourth to lead 23-13.
For the third time in the game, the Tigers turned it over on downs in Ozark territory with less than eight minutes to play when a pass intended for Morgan was broken up inside the 20.
Ozark tacked on a 35-yard field goal with 2:28 to play to lead by 13.
“You try to find some positives in there,” Guidie said. “I felt we stood toe-to-toe with them. We moved the ball well offensively in the first half, we just hurt ourselves a little bit. We got a break, too, with the botched punt and we scored so it wasn’t like we didn’t get any breaks.”
Defensively, Guidie said his team was “okay” at times, and something less than that at others. He pointed to a third-and-18 for Ozark in Carthage territory on the first possession of the second half. Ozark threw a screen and gained 20 yards and a first down, then scored five plays later to take the lead.
“That’s not good,” he said. “We have to be better in those situations.”
Guidie said if there was a turning point, it might have been when Carthage turned it over on downs in Ozark territory on its first possession of the second half. The Tigers had gone from their own 22 to the Ozark 29.
“We really needed to answer their score there, that was a key I think,” he said. “We went for it on fourth down and we got stopped short. If there’s a turning point that’s probably what it was.”
Carthage out-gained Ozark in yards 360-275. The Tigers threw for 190 and rushed for 170. Carthage also had the advantage in first downs, 27-19.
Newman led the team with 21 rushes for 124 yards and a score. Sappington had 10 carries for 29 yards. Ozark’s Burlage rushed 19 times for 79 yards.
Sappington completed 10-of-20 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. Morgan had four receptions for 93 yards and a score. Dillon Lancaster had three for 52.
Carthage travels to Webb City next week. The Cardinals beat Carl Junction 27-12.