EAST PRAIRIE -- The final score of the Charleston-East Prairie game may be a bit deceiving.
Charleston won 47-26, but East Prairie was in the game as late as midway of the fourth quarter, trailing by only eight at 34-26.
Two late Charleston touchdowns 12 seconds apart, with the clock under two minutes, inflated the final margin.
"Charleston's got a good team, lots of talent everywhere, but I think we were just one or two plays away," said East Prairie coach Corey Adkisson.
The East Prairie Eagles lit the scoreboard first. After recovering a Charleston fumble at the Bluejay 27, the Eagles needed three plays, capped by a 15-yard touchdown toss from Mitchell Winchester to wideout Hunter Hutcheson in the left corner of the end zone. Paris Tipler booted the extra point for a 7-0 lead at the 7:08 mark of the opening quarter.
Employing a tactic of "pooch" kicking on kickoffs, the Eagles put the Bluejays in short-field position following the opening kickoff and the kickoff after the touchdown.
However, the ploy worked well enough as the Bluejays were forced to turn the ball over on downs.
"They're dangerous with B.J. Clark and Joseph Watts back there and anytime you kick it to those guys they've got a shot at taking one back," said Adkisson, of the kickoff strategy. "We were trying to limit their big plays and make them play offense. Sometimes it worked to our advantage and sometimes it didn't. I wasn't going to let them beat us on special teams with a big play."
Charleston, on a short punt, took its third possession at their 43. Quarterback Josh Marshall wiped out a first-and-15 situation with a 15-yard run, then a 15-yard unsportmanlike conduct penalty was tacked on to mark the ball deep in Eagle territory at the 17. Two plays later Marshall scored on 1-yard sneak. Dustin Allen's extra-point kick tied the score at 7 with 46.1 seconds left in the period.
In the second quarter, East Prairie struck again on a six-play drive when Winchester dove in from the 1, staking the Eagles to a 13-7 lead with 9:46 left. The point after was blocked.
The Eagles were unable to capitalize on back-to-back defensive plays by defensive back Zach Secoy.
Secoy thwarted a Bluejay drive when he recovered a fumble at the East Prairie 6, but the Eagles stalled and were forced to punt.
On Charleston's first play from scrimmage, Secoy intercepted Bobby Clark's halfback pass to give the Eagles possession at their own 13, but they went three-and-out from their own 14.
"Our defense really stepped up tonight," said Charleston coach Al Marshall.
Another short punt set the Bluejays up at the East Prairie 30. Josh Marshall connected with wide receiver Justin Clark on a 7-yard TD strike with 1:07 left in the half. Allen's kick lifted the Bluejays to their first lead at 14-13.
Displeased with his team's first-half performance and lack of discipline -- the Bluejays were flagged five times, one personal foul and one facemask infraction -- Charleston coach Marshall appealed to his charges.
Said Al Marshall, "I told 'em at halftime that it was time to bow up and come through. Time to stop talking and start playing."
The Bluejays came out of the break with TDs on their first two possessions.
"We lined up in that "T" formation and just came at them," said Al Marshall. "I turned the playcalling over to Josh (Marshall) in the second half. He audibled the whole second half off what he was seeing at the line of scrimmage."
Josh Marshall capped a seven-play drive with an off-tackle run from the 3. Allen's kick sent the Bluejays up 21-13.
On their second possession, a tackle-breaking 35-yard run by Bobby Clark set the Bluejays up for Watts' 3-yard TD run. The extra-point kick was wide, leaving Charleston with a 27-13 edge at the 40.8-second mark of the third quarter.
But East Prairie was not about to lay down.
"That's been a trait of East Prairie football forever," said Adkisson. "We may not have the best teams, but we never give up."
The Eagles cut the margin to seven at 27-20 on Tipler's 4-yard burst and extra-point kick with 10:13 remaining in the contest.
The Bluejays responded with a 63-yard drive of their own. A twisting, stumbling 28-yard cutback run by Tavis Hamilton was the key play. Bobby Clark finished the drive with a 6-yard run. Allen's kick gave the Bluejays a little breathing room at 34-20 with 6:01 left.
But East Prairie came right back as Tipler, who rushed for 153 yards, broke through a gaping hole up the middle, cut back to the left sideline and raced untouched on a 68-yard gallop to slice the margin to eight at 34-26 with 5:
05 to go.
"Paris Tipler is a man out there," said Adkisson. "I think he's a legitimate Carr Trophy (top area player award) candidate, even as a junior. He showed it tonight against a very good team."
Charleston coach Marshall also praised Tipler, saying, "Paris Tipler is a fine back. I don't know if there is anyone any better."
The Eagles sent their hometown fans into a frenzy when they recovered their onside kick at their own 48 following Tipler's score.
But the Charleston defense stiffened, pushing the Eagles backward and forcing a pass on fourth and 20.
Bobby Clark intercepted at the Charleston 37. Three plays later, scatback Watts broke clear down the left sideline for a 56-yard scoring jaunt with 1:49 to go for a 40-26 advantage.
Watts, appearing recovered from a nagging hip pointer, rushed for a game-
high 169 yards. The elusive Bobby Clark also reached the century mark with 101 rushing yards.
Josh Marshall punctuated the Charleston victory when he stepped in front of an Eagle receiver for a pick in the left flat and went 32 yards to paydirt with 1:
The interception return closed out a nice all-round performance by Marshall, who ran for two scores and threw for another.
East Prairie's Adkisson lauded his players for their gutsy effort.
"I can't be prouder of my kids," he said. "When you're dealing with high school kids, if they play their hearts out for you, you can't ask for anything more.
"We felt like this was going to be a big boost for us, if we played well, and we had a chance to get a "W", so we're going to take a positive out of that and try to go into districts and make some noise there."
Al Marshall saw a turning point for his squad.
"We had guys play hurt tonight," he said. "That's what we're looking for--that you've finally hit the right buttons to turn the corner and make boys into men."
Charleston (5-2) opens district play on the road against Crystal City on Friday.
East Prairie (3-3) hosts Malden in its district opener, also on Friday.