BRANSON — The Neosho Wildcats scored 14 points in the first 5 minutes, 42 seconds of their Central Ozark Conference Large contest Friday night against Branson at Pirate Stadium.
Neither team scored in the second half and it helped when the Wildcats forced Branson into five turnovers after halftime.
Neosho’s early offense proved more than enough for a 20-7 win over Branson.
The win gave the Wildcats a 2-0 start overall and in conference, and the Wildcats have already matched their win total from all of last season.
“The defense came up huge,” Neosho head coach Leon Miller said. “The offense, we had our spurts when we played well and our spurts when we didn’t, but defense played huge tonight. All three phases were solid. Offensively, penalties and turnovers really hurt us tonight and we’ve got to address those going forward.”
When Branson scored on a touchdown pass with 2:15 remaining in the first half, that snapped a string of nearly 70 shutout minutes for the Wildcats defense against Ozark and Branson in the first two weeks.
Branson found success through the air a couple times in the first half, but the Wildcats responded in the second half with four interceptions against Pirate quarterback Gabe Sylvester.
Setting the tone for a sloppy second half, Neosho senior Cade Lyerla intercepted Sylvester on just the second play after halftime.
Following a Kipp Box sack of Sylvester, Bret Camerer intercepted Sylvester for the first time and in a fourth quarter filled with turnovers, Brady Franklin picked off Sylvester, Quincey Willis recovered a fumble on a botched punt return, and Camerer closed out the turnovers with his second interception.
Those last three Branson miscues happened over a 3:28 stretch of the fourth.
The Wildcats turned it over on downs four times in the second half, all of which contributed to that scoreless final 24 minutes.
Eventually, though, Friday night boiled down to Neosho’s hot start — one of the scores set up by a fumble recovery, Branson’s first turnover — and Neosho’s opportunistic defense.
“Coach (Eric) Yoakum, Coach (Larry) Perkins, Kyle Wood, and Josh Yarnell are doing a good job,” Miller said. “We’ve got a team. We’ve got a team. A lot of our kids play both ways and they’ve done enough to get it done. It was ugly, but it’s a W.”
Neosho meets fellow unbeaten Webb City in Week 3, presenting an early game filled with conference and district significance.
“They’re all big,” Miller said. “It’s huge for our kids to get off to a good start like we have, but we’ve got a lot of things to work on. Our kids know that. We’ll come in, evaluate things, and we’ll go to work.”
The Wildcats and the Cardinals make up 66.6 percent of the remaining unbeaten teams in the COC (Carthage No. 3) and in the current Class 4, District 6 standings updated after Week 2 games, Neosho leads at 63 points and Webb City’s not far behind at 58.
The Cardinals are, of course, the defending Class 4 state champions and they earned a 47-27 win over Class 6 Joplin in Week 2. (Neosho blanked Class 6 Ozark 35-0 in Week 1.)
Never mind that not a single Neosho player was alive the last time Neosho defeated Webb City in football (28-13 in 1999).
Back to Branson.
For the second week in a row, the Wildcats received possession to begin the game and they made their opponent pay with an early scoring drive.
On the fifth play of the first drive, on a second-and-12 from the Wildcat 29, Lyerla broke into the clear for a 71-yard touchdown run only 2:45 in.
The Pirates only ran two plays on their first drive, which ended in their first turnover.
Taking over possession at the Branson 26, Neosho went quickly to work and senior running back Donnie Fox nearly found paydirt on a run that gave the Wildcats a first and goal at the Branson 3. Three plays later, Gage Kelley went in for his fifth touchdown of the season (Lyerla’s TD marked the first offensive TD scored outside Kelley) and Lyerla’s conversion run made it a 14-0 score.
The offensive pyrotechnics slowed down until right before halftime — Branson’s only score followed by a Kelley 50-yard run with only 31.4 seconds on the clock.
The Pirates’ only scoring drive was, of course, set up by a Neosho turnover.