(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
CAPE GIRARDEAU - Returning most of the team from last year, including a pair of Division I recruits, preseason expectations were high for New Madrid County Central's football team.
After falling at Jonesboro (Ark.) last week 26-7, the Eagles lived up the preseason hype with a stunning 26-20 overtime victory against Southeast Missouri's top-ranked team, Cape Central, on Thursday at Houck Stadium.
The Eagles (1-1) fought back from a 17-0 halftime deficit and dodged several bullets along the way, but were rewarded with the school's biggest victory in two years to snap a six-game losing streak.
"The Salem win that got us to the dome two years ago was a big one, but this has to rank right up there," said NMCC head coach Steve Rogers.
Rogers said it was the statement win his team needed after going 2-8 last year.
"The people on our schedule had better not overlook us, because we're coming," said Rogers. "This was a big win. Hopefully, it will give us the boost we need to go into the rest of the season. The kids showed a lot of guts tonight."
Guts all the way down to the final play.
Trailing 26-20 in overtime, the Tigers (1-1) appeared destined to score when Tyrone Reece took the pitch at the 7-yard line and went around the left corner towards the end zone.
But out of nowhere, Reece lost control of the ball and fumbled right into the hands of NMCC's Brandon Waters.
Waters returned the fumble 95 yards to the NMCC end zone, but per high school rules, the play was ruled dead after the change of possession.
His fumble return didn't count on the scoreboard, but that didn't bother an ecstatic Waters.
"I saw him fumbling the ball around, and it was just like God gave it to me, so I took it to the house," he said. After the game, spectators were wondering how Reece lost the ball.
"He wasn't trying to switch hands," said Cape Central head coach Lawrence Brookins. "He just lost the ball. He just lost the stinking ball. The kid was trying and giving all he had. But I'm going to tell you this -- we didn't lose the game right there. We could've controlled our fate long before."
The Tigers had a chance to possibly win the game in regulation with the score tied at 20-20, but first team all-state kicker Colin Schermann missed a 33-yard field goal with six seconds left in the game.
"He makes that in his sleep," said Brookins. "It was just a little bit wide. Sometimes it just doesn't go through."
The Tigers scored 17 points in the second quarter off three Eagle turnovers.
An NMCC miscue early in the first quarter wiped out a sure touchdown for the Eagles. Tight end Vaughn Shepherd caught a 30-yard pass but was stripped at the 1-yard line right before crossing the end zone.
Cape Central recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
In the second quarter, NMCC was set to punt but the snap went right through the hands of punter Brandon Fields, which the Tigers recovered at the Eagle 3-yard line. That set up a 4-yard touchdown run by quarterback Mitch Craft with 8:34 remaining in the half.
Another NMCC fumble set up a short Cape Central drive that let to a 35-yard field goal by Schermann with 5:16 left in the half to make it 10-0.
On NMCC's ensuing possession, the Eagles fumbled once again, which Cape Central's Brandon Twiggs bobbled for several yards, but finally recovered for a 2-yard touchdown return to make it 17-0 with 4:06 left in the half.
"We did everything in the world wrong in the first half," said Rogers. "We got the ball on the one yard line that gets stripped. We have a bad snap on the punt. We fumble the ball deep in our territory. It was just Murphy's Law. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong."
But the first half didn't end well for the Tigers as Craft, an all-conference quarterback, was lost for the game with a concussion while playing defense.
"He just got a nice clean, legal block right in the chest," said Brookins of Craft's injury. "He turned to go chase and wham -- hit the wall. It happens."
With Craft sidelined, the Tigers managed just 90 yards of offense in the second half and overtime.
All the while NMCC looked like a completely different team in the second half.
After a solid kickoff return to the 44-yard line to start the second half, the Eagles promptly marched 56 yards in nine plays, eventually scoring on a Remond Willis 1-yard plunge with 6:46 left in the third quarter.
The extra point was blocked, leaving the Eagles behind 17-6.
After forcing a punt, NMCC took over at their own 47. This time the Eagles went 53 yards in six plays, capped by quarterback Darrel Newsome's 22-yard pass to Edgar Givens with 1:47 remaining in the third quarter.
The two-point conversion failed to keep things at 17-12.
Cape Central responded with their best drive of the second half, going 52 yards before stalling at the Eagle 21. The Tigers settled for a 38-yard field goal by Schermann to boost the lead to 20-12 with 8:35 left in regulation.
NMCC wasted little time getting back into the game as Willis took the handoff on the Eagles next play, broke down the left sideline, and cut back across midfield to score an 80-yard touchdown.
"We had hands on the guy all the way down the sideline -- flap, flap, flap, flap," said Brookins. "But a hand ain't going to get him down. He's too strong of a guy."
The touchdown trimmed the lead to 20-18, but the Eagles needed two to tie.
Newsome was able to get it done on a play-action pass. He rolled right and found Shepherd for the two-point conversion to tie things up at 20-20 with 8:20 left in the game.
But nobody could've predicted what transpired in the final minutes.
After both teams exchanged punts, Schermann attempted a career long 58-yard field goal, but was just a few feet short.
The Eagles took over possession at the 20-yard line on the touchback but were forced to punt.
A bad snap forced new punter Givens to run with the ball but he was tackled for a 17-yard loss at the Eagle 18 with 1:54 left in the game. That set up Schermann's failed game-winning attempt.
In the overtime, NMCC needed three plays to score from the 25-yard line. Newsome found receiver Mack Kimble on a slant pattern for a 21-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 26-20 lead.
The extra point was blocked, leaving the door open for a Tigers victory.
New quarterback Mark Dunaway connected with Clay Schermann for an 18-yard pass on the Tigers' first play in overtime to move the ball to the 7-yard line.
But Reece's fumble on the next play clinched the win for the Eagles.
Willis, who played quarterback most of last season, turned in a stellar performance at tailback. The University of Illinois recruit had 223 yards rushing on 31 carries with two scores.
"He's a horse," said Rogers. "He knows he's a Division I prospect. He's the man and he's got to be able to carry the football. He's going to get it 20 to 25 times a game."
The Eagles also got a big day out of Newsome. The senior, making his first start at quarterback, threw for 149 yards on 8-of-13 passing with two scores and no interceptions.
"This was his second game ever playing quarterback, and he looked pretty sharp tonight," said Rogers.
Givens, who has verbally committed to the University of Missouri, finished with 74 yards receiving on four catches.
The Eagles shredded the Tigers' defense with 368 yards of offense. The total would've been even higher if not for the two botched punt attempts.
"We tackled pitifully," said Brookins. "Our tackling was the worst I've seen in a long time -- since I've been in Cape Girardeau. If I could take them and not get sued, we'd practice tonight and we'd tackle for about an hour."
The Tigers finished with 207 yards of offense and only 41 through the air.
Craft was only 1-of-5 passing for eight yards in the first half, but he did some damage on the ground with 46 yards on 12 carries.
Twiggs led the Tigers with 51 yards rushing on 11 carries before leaving with an injury in the third quarter. Fullback Gabe Edwards finished with 48 yards on six carries.
"Even with Mitch out, we moved it okay," said Brookins. "We moved it enough to put ourselves in a position to win."
Cape Central will play at Blytheville, Ark., next Friday at 7:30 p.m.
NMCC will host Farmington next Friday at 7 p.m.
"You kind of start doubting yourself after you lose six in a row," said Rogers. "I told the guys coming up here, we were probably the only people in Southeast Missouri that think we could win this game. Even when we were down 17-0, we didn't give up."
NOTES -- Thursday's defeat is Cape Central's first loss to a SEMO Conference team since Oct. 5, 2001, when they lost to Jackson 33-0 ... NMCC holds a 4-2 edge against Cape Central since the series renewed in 1998 ... The Eagles' six-game losing streak was the team's longest since a nine-game skid during the 1991 and 1992 seasons.