By Levi Payton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CARTHAGE, Mo. — It was only fitting Friday’s season-opening Central Ozark Conference-Large Division bout between Ozark and Carthage got a bit ugly at the end.
After all, ugly play seemed to be the theme of the night.
In a game that featured a safety, blocked punt return and three turnovers, a controversial call at the end had fans buzzing as they headed for the exits having witnessed Ozark beat Carthage 26-20 to spoil the grand opening of sparkling new David Heffner Stadium on the Carthage High School campus.
Trailing 13-9 at halftime, Ozark found new life to start the second half when tailback Nathaniel Burlage bowled his way into the heart of Carthage’s defense on eight consecutive run plays to help power a 15-play, 71-yard drive that ended on a 15-yard run by Preston Carson to give Ozark the lead. That drive bore a stark comparison to Ozark’s first drive of the game, an 11-play, 42-yard drive that saw Burlage carry six times on a drive that ended in a Danny Carr touchdown.
“We knew we had some adjustments we wanted to make at halftime,” Ozark coach Chad Depee said. “It’s not rocket science. We knew if we were going to have an advantage anywhere, it would be physicality. We knew we would have to win that battle because of their speed and their talent everywhere.”
Ozark’s defense, and Carthage’s inability to control the football, made the difference. Ozark scored 14 points off of three Carthage turnovers.
Carthage fumbled away its opening drive at its own 42, leading to Ozark’s opening score. Carthage fumbled it away again at Ozark’s 15 in the second quarter, taking potential points off the board.
Still, despite so many shots to the foot Carthage had a chance at the end. Despite a short touchdown run by Danny Carr and a 35-yard field goal by Chandler Doss in the second half, Carthage made things interesting when Jayden Morgan hauled in a 35-yard strike with 55 seconds left.
Then things got crazy. An onside kick appeared to be recovered by Carthage and advanced to the Ozark 31. Officials, however, blew the play dead and, at least initially, ruled the ball belonged to Carthage. Another official, however, saw it different and ruled Carthage touched the ball before it traveled the necessary 10 yards.
Hundreds decked in blue booed. Ozark knelt twice and escaped enemy territory with a 1-0 mark.
Carthage coach Jon Guidie tried to search for positives after the game.
“It was wild at the beginning and at the end,” Guidie said. “A lot went on in that game. I guess it’s typical of a first game.
“We knew they were a good team coming in here and they proved it. We turned the ball over (three) times and you’re not going to win very many games like that.”
Burlage led Ozark with 74 yards on 16 carries, while Ethan Sandoval caught eight passes for 43 yards.
Carthage quarterback Zeke Sappington completed 11 of 21 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. Clay Newman, who scooped a blocked punt and raced 11 yards for a touchdown to put Carthage in front 13-7 midway through the second quarter, rushed for 113 yards and another score on 20 carries.
Morgan finished with four catches for 93 yards and a TD. Carthage’s Arkell Smith had 46 yards on four grabs.
Ozark 26, Carthage 20
Ozark 7 2 7 10 – 26
Carthage 6 7 0 7 – 20
O-Danny Carr 1 run (Chandler Doss kick)
C-Clay Newman 1 run (kick failed)
C-Newman 11 punt return (Johnathan Lancaster kick)
O-Preston Carson 15 run (Doss kick)
O-Carr 1 run (Doss kick)
O-Doss 35 FG
C-Jayden Morgan 35 pass from Zeke Sappington (Lancaster kick)