There was a bit of a buzz in the air along Neosho’s sideline in the early stages of Friday’s varsity football season opener at Plaster Stadium on the campus of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.
With less than five minutes remaining in the first half, the Wildcats were still very much in the game. One play, though, turned the tide, altered the complexion of the first half and sent the Bolivar Liberators to a 51-14 victory.
After falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter, the Wildcats put together a solid 10-play drive — one that was kept alive on a 10 yard completion from quarterback Austin Hailey to receiver Nathan Moser on fourth-and-nine — and capped it on a one-yard touchdown run by Chris Goodwin to make it 14-7 with 11:56 to go in the second quarter.
The Liberators (1-0) answered Goodwin’s score with one of their own seven plays later on a 24-yard run by Drew Legan. Neosho’s Ben Elledge blocked the extra point to keep the score at 20-7. Despite the setback the Wildcats remained within striking distance.
The tide would turn against the Wildcats two possessions later. After holding the Liberators to a three-and-out, Neosho got the ball back and had a chance to shorten the deficit with 5:23 to go in the half. On their second play of the drive — facing a second-and-two from their own 39 — a mishandled exchange on a handoff saw the ball hop into the arms of Bolivar defender T.J. Ridge who promptly, well, Liberated his team from Neosho’s threat by returning the ball 39 yards for a touchdown. A two-point conversion made it 28-7. That turnover would set the tone for the remainder of the game.
A growing number of mistakes plagued the Wildcats from that point forward. They bailed the Liberators out of a few third and fourth down situations by jumping offsides. They threw an interception. They swarmed to the ball, but struggled to stop Bolivar on initial contact on numerous occasions and the Liberators took advantage of those added opportunities.
Perhaps the growing score magnified those miscues a bit, but for the Wildcats, it was just one of those nights. The Liberators scored again with 16 seconds left in the half and took a 34-14 advantage into the break.
“We had just gotten a stop finally, and then we just gave them an easy one,” Wildcats coach Dustin Baldwin said of the turnover.
Baldwin accepted responsibility for the outcome while also saying the team as a whole must clean things up if they’re planning to hang with good football teams like Bolivar.
“Certainly, we’re not ready to win games like that against those kinds of teams.” Baldwin said. “Tackling like we did and making the mistakes offensively and defensively — we were jumping offsides. We’re not ready to win against a team like that, but that’s what we’re going to try to (correct) next week.
“We’re just a sloppy team right now not playing with a lot of discipline. As the coach, that starts with me. We’re going to try to get better, get tougher and play with more discipline.”
This game wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. The veteran Liberators are led by a quarterback that most scouting services consider the best collegiate prospect in the state in senior Rafe Peavey, a University of Arkansas commit.
In other words, the Wildcats weren’t facing some rinky-dink program.
There were some bright spots for the Wildcats, namely the connection between quarterback Austin Hailey — who started the game under center — and senior receiver Justin McKee. The tandem was in tune all evening as the speedy McKee hauled in five passes for 99 yards, including a perfect 34-yard touchdown strike in the fourth quarter. Hailey, meanwhile, completed seven passes for 113 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Baldwin said he “certainly” saw a few positives from his team in the game.
“We made some plays,” Baldwin said. “We’re just not a consistent football team right now and that’s what we have to work at — getting consistent. Mental toughness is really what it comes down to. Right now we’re just not there, but we’ll keep working to get there.”
Remember that part about it just being one of those nights? Well, the Wildcats didn’t catch any breaks. With the Wildcats trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, they had the Liberators facing second-and-21 from Neosho’s 40 when Wildcats defensive back Kaden Roy batted down a pass in what appeared to be a fine, clean defensive play. As the Wildcats celebrated, though, an official some 15 yards behind the play pulled out the yellow hanky and flagged Roy for interference.
Whether the call was correct or not, the play bailed the Liberators out in a big way. Rather than facing third-and-21 from the 40, they instead had a first down from the 25. They scored four plays later on a run by Legan to make it 14-0.
Neosho (0-1) entertains Monett in the home opener at Bob Anderson Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday.