For the second season in a row, the Neosho football team closed out the regular season winless after falling to the Ozark Tigers 41-20 on senior night at Bob Anderson Stadium.
The Wildcats (0-9) fell into an early 13-0 hole, but clawed back to make it 13-7 in the second quarter and were within five (19-14) until late in the third. But big plays and self-inflicted mistakes continued to haunt the Wildcats.
The knockout blow came in the early portion of the fourth, just minutes after the Wildcats made their final push. Trailing 19-7 at halftime, the Wildcats took the opening possession of the second half and marched 67 yards on 11 plays — the drive was prolonged thanks to a 15-yard facemask penalty when the Wildcats came up short on a fourth down attempt — and scored on a 1-yard sneak by Kaden Roy to make it 19-14 with 7:24 left in the third quarter.
The Wildcats then pulled out some trickery and attempted a surprise onside kick. The play nearly worked, too, but the Tigers pounced on the loose ball after it bounced freely for what seemed like an eternity, and took over at Neosho's 39. Some 12 plays later, the Tigers scored on a 7-yard run by Caleb Essick, and a two-point conversion pass from Clint Godfrey to McCamey Freese made it 27-14.
That's when things began to turn sour for the Wildcats.
On their next drive, Neosho began with the ball at their own 24 and marched effortlessly to Ozark's 47. After a pair of dropped passes — each of which would have resulted in first down — Roy hit receiver Justin McKee on a 10-yard pass to move the sticks to the 37. The next four passes fell incomplete, however, and a third drop was made — it, too, would have resulted in a first down — and the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs. As fate would seemingly have it, Essick broke free on the next play and took it 63 yards for a Tigers touchdown to make it 34-14 and all but bury the Wildcats.
Neosho answered with another score on a 2-yard run by McKee to make it 34-20. The Wildcats then got creative again on the kickoff, this time recovering the loose ball at Ozark's 21. Two quarterback sacks later, former Neosho native Clint Godfrey picked off Roy at Ozark's 21 and returned it to the 45. The Tigers then moved 55 yards and scored eight plays later on a 32-yard pass from Godfrey to Wyatt Mitchem on fourth down to make it 41-20 with 1:53 left in the game.
"We shot ourselves in the foot," Wildcats coach Dustin Baldwin said. "We'd (gain yards) and then (lose yards), or our guy would go the wrong way or we'd wouldn't pick up a blitz that we're supposed to. We're obviously not a good enough team to overcome those kinds of things right now.
"To only have seven points at half, I thought, was kind of disappointing. Ozark is a team that has given up some points too this year, so we thought we could do some things and could get more than 20. We kind of expected a shootout.
"Credit to them. They made more plays than we did and that's the bottom line at the end of the night."
The Tigers benefited from the return of tailbacks Essick and Quinton Wingert, who were both coming off of injuries. Essick ran for 114 yards and three touchdowns on six carries, while Wingert rushed 22 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. The speedy Essick had the knack for hitting the home run, scoring on runs of 38, 7 and 63 yards.
"Those two guys are a pretty good 1-2 punch there," Baldwin said. "That's definitely a difference maker for them."
There were some bright spots for the Wildcats. McKee kept the game from getting out of hand in the early stages as he picked off a pair of passes deep in the red zone. His first pick came when Godfrey overthrew his receiver on a seam route in the back of the end zone for a Wildcats touchback. He later picked Godfrey a second time at Neosho's eight with the Wildcats trailing 13-7.
McKee also added a rushing touchdown and caught seven passes for 126 yards. Sophomore quarterback Kaden Roy came off the bench and also had a productive night, throwing for 192 yards on 16 completions and rushing for 63 more and two TDs.
The Wildcats will return to Branson for the second time this season when they take on the Pirates at 7 p.m. Thursday at Branson High School.