By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
WILLARD – On a night of a combined 11 turnovers – including eight lost fumbles – wouldn’t you know that the most important play (and arguably the most athletic) belonged to a future college football defensive tackle?
That is, a tight end listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds.
“I practice on pancaking people,” said Ethan Burson, whose best Jason Witten impersonation – a gymnastic-like touchdown reception – sent Willard to a 10-7 victory against Danny Carr-less Ozark in a Central Ozark Conference showdown Friday night.
Indeed, how Burson ever got his paws on a 25-yard pass over the middle from quarterback Quintin Batson will certainly be the talk of the film session in the days ahead.
After all, Willard rode his early third-quarter TD – plus a Brayden Swearingen’s first-half, 37-yard field goal and a key fumble recovery at its own 4 in the fourth quarter – to a homecoming win that followed blowout losses to Webb City and Carthage. Willard also recovered six Ozark fumbles and blocked a first-half field goal.
“If you look at me, I’m more of a blocking tight end. So I thank God every time they give me an opportunity to catch the ball,” said a smiling Burson, who has verbally committed to play D-tackle at the University of South Dakota and idolizes NFL tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.
He later added, laughing of course, “I keep asking (Coach Brock) Roweton to run the little shovel pass like they do to Kelce, but he won’t do it for me.”
Willard certainly could laugh or at least breathe a sigh of relief, given Ozark threw a scare late.
You see, Ozark recovered a muffed punt near midfield with 3:23 left and turned into Preston Carson’s 1-yard touchdown with 1:42 left. And, despite not recovering the on-side kick, Ozark had one last series with 73 seconds left to play – and almost pulled off a shocker.
Carson found daylight with 12 seconds left, running from the Ozark 25 to the Willard 11. But the play was wiped out because referees flagged Ozark for an illegal motion penalty.
It was that kind of night for Ozark. Among its lost fumbles were ones at its own 26 and the Willard 20-, 19- and 7-yard lines – the latter coming with 7:29 left in the game. On that one, the ball popped free from a running back and landed right in the arms of Willard’s Chandler Murray.
Several of Ozark’s fumbles were on quarterback-running back exchanges with Carson, a sophomore, subbing for Carr. Ozark coach Chad Depee declined to elaborate on Carr’s absence.
“I’m proud of our defense. They kept us in it the entire game,” Depee said. “Their backs got put against the wall multiple times and they did all I could ask of them.”
“But, the reality is, in the game of football, turnovers is the No. 1 indicator,” Depee added. “Of course, an option team, the No. 1 rule is you’ve got to hang on to the football. You can’t give the defense the ball back.”
Willard had its own issues, too, losing two fumbles and watching Ozark intercept three passes. But the home team did just enough to avoid disaster and find points.
For instance, Swearengin – a former soccer player who had never played football until last year – drilled the 37-yard field goal to open the second quarter. It was his third field goal in three games and came four plays after Willard had recovered an Ozark fumble at the 26.
“It was a great team effort all around. They got me down in range,” Swearengin said. “Coach talks about it all the time – do your job. And I did my job tonight.”
Said Roweton, “He’s got a big leg. He could go kick in college because he gets a touch-back almost every time.”
Still, clinging to a 3-0 advantage, Willard needed a boost after halftime. Burson provided it with a spectacular catch, getting behind the linebackers on a seam route.
“That was a big-time throw and a big-time catch,” said Roweton, whose team is now 3-3. “He’s a great target, but he plays every snap of the game and just wears out. We just use other guys as offensive weapons.”
Said Batson, “We needed something. We didn’t have any energy. We weren’t getting it in the air. We weren’t getting it in the air. That was huge momentum for us.”
Carson finished 6 of 15 passing for 93 yards while Skout Lave had 90 yards rushing on six carries for Ozark, which is now 3-3.
Batson was 4 of 10 passing for 65 yards, had 37 yards rushing, while sophomore Garrett Rice churned for 68 yards on 16 carries for Willard, which forced an incomplete pass from the Ozark 17 on the final play.
“Up 10-0, we were trying to take the wind out of the sails and milk the clock. We had a bad turnover on the punt return. The game was over at that point, and we let them have life,” Roweton said. “But I’m really proud of our seniors and the defense, on homecoming night, to come up with a big stop when they did.”