CAPE GIRARDEAU -- Last season, Cape Central was the only team that came close to New Madrid County Central in the regular season.
With several starters returning for both teams, this year's game promised to be even better. The highly-anticipated rematch between the two schools lived up to its billing Friday night, as the Eagles held off the Tigers 28-20.
NMCC led 20-0 and looked ready to post a blowout win. But the Tigers came alive in the third quarter, scoring 20 unanswered points.
"Maybe our kids enjoy making this big comeback attempt at the end," said a disappointed Cape Central coach Lawrence Brookins. "Instead of trying to knock somebody out early, it's like we let them hang around so we can make the great home stand in front of the crowd."
The Tigers did put together an impressive comeback, but it wasn't enough to hand the state-ranked Eagles their first loss.
"It was a heck of a team effort," said NMCC coach Steve Rogers. "The guys played with a lot of heart. It would have been very easy to fold, but we pulled together and showed a lot of grit. This is a big win for us."
NMCC's speed and athleticism overwhelmed Cape Central at first, as the Eagles cashed in on touchdowns runs from Dereke Tipler and Brian Murph. Murph also completed a TD pass to Desmond Sims to build the 20-0 lead.
The Eagles' undersized line fared well against their much bigger opponents, allowing the backfield to rush for 144 yards in the half.
"I thought we would be able to take advantage of their offensive line," said Brookins. "Our kids won't see a smaller group the rest of the year. We're going to see trees and houses in Bluff, Jackson, Sikeston, and Graves County. They must have beat us with their quickness, because it sure wasn't their brute strength."
But things turned sour for the Eagles in the third quarter. Cape Central took advantage of an interception, a botched punt at the NMCC 4-yard line, and a fumble at the NMCC 1. Everything seemed to be going the Tigers' way, as Marcus Klund even caught a deflected pass for a 14-yard touchdown. "That was eight minutes of hell," said Rogers. "It was Murphy's Law. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and I sat there and witnessed it. We helped fuel the fire with penalties and mistakes."
While NMCC had a bad stretch of luck in the third quarter, Cape Central caught a few tough breaks of their own in the first half.
The Tigers lost a fumble on their first play from scrimmage, they had three delay of game penalties, missed a field goal, and saw a touchdown called back for clipping.
Later Cape Central missed a PAT that would've given them the lead.
"It was like anything you could do wrong offensively, we chose to do for whatever reason, especially early," said Brookins. "New Madrid played hard on defense, but we sure helped them out."
With the score tied at 20 in the fourth quarter, Cape Central quarterback Mitch Craft looked to score the go-ahead touchdown with a 30-yard pass.
But Tipler intercepted the throw to finally put an end to the Tigers' scoring surge.
The Eagles then regrouped and put together an 11-play drive that ran over five minutes off the clock and resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by Murph on a quarterback sneak with 3:44 left in the game.
NMCC faked the PAT and Murph ran in the two-point conversion to give the Eagles a 28-20 lead.
"The guys showed their resiliency," said Rogers. "We put a heck of a drive together, ran in the two-point conversion, then played six great downs of defense."
Cape Central got the ball back at its own 30 with 3:39 left on the clock.
Craft was able to guide the Tigers down to the NMCC 46, but a huge sack by Josh King and two key deflections by defensive back George Stricklen allowed the Eagles to escape with the win.
"George Stricklen has spent countless hours in the weight room," explained Rogers. "Now he is reaping the benefits of his hard work. He plays flanker for us, he punts for us, he's on all the special teams, and he plays defense. He is a great athlete and a great young man."
NMCC's defense wreaked havoc on the Tigers the entire game, sacking Craft six times for a loss of 38 yards.
Cape Central finished with just 56 yards rushing on 31 attempts. Monroe Hicks led the team with 48 yards on nine carries.
Tipler led all rushers with 128 yards on 21 attempts. He had 108 yards at halftime, but was contained in the second half.
Murph, who threw for 213 yards in NMCC's opener, struggled in the passing department completing four passes on 12 attempts for 44 yards with an interception.
"We made some poor decisions in the passing game tonight," said Rogers. "Some of our receivers ran the wrong routes, and Murph is a lot better of a quarterback than he showed today."
Cape Central (1-1) will travel to Blytheville in Week 3, while NMCC (2-0) will have another strong test when they play host to state-ranked Farmington.