By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Neosho coach Leon Miller wanted his team to show toughness on a cold and wet night in Willard.
He got it from both units, as the Wildcats defense made two pivotal fourth-down stops in the second half and the offense scored the game’s decisive touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Neosho (5-3 overall) then got a third and final fourth-down stop in the final minute to prevail 21-14 on Friday night.
“I liked the toughness we showed tonight for four quarters,” Miller said. “We challenged them at halftime and they came out and responded. I love to see that toughness out of them.”
Late in the 3rd quarter, Neosho’s defense denied Willard on 4th and 1 from midfield. The Wildcats capitalized on the short field, scoring seven plays later on a 13-yard touchdown run by Cade Lyerla to go up 21-14.
“That was a big momentum changer for us, because (Willard) was bleeding us a little bit with the run at that time,” Miller said. “We were able to get the ball back and convert it into points.”
Willard mostly held Neosho’s option-run game in check, but the Wildcats sprung free for a couple of big plays – including long first-quarter touchdown runs by Lyerla (30 yards) and Donnie Fox (63 yards).
“Offensively in the first half, that was pretty much what (Neosho) did,” said Willard coach Brock Roweton. “Unfortunately, those two runs equaled two touchdowns. Our defense did a good job. Really, on both sides of the ball, we did a lot of good stuff.”
Fox led Neosho with 120 rushing yards – 97 of which came on two carries. Quarterback Gage Kelley had two pass attempts.
“We made the plays we had to,” Miller said. “They bled us at times, but we kept them out of the endzone enough to get it done tonight.
“It was ugly, but that’s the game of football. It’s not always going to be pretty.”
Down 21-14, Willard drove into Neosho territory again midway through the fourth quarter. The Tigers tried a trick play on 4th and 2 from the Neosho 49, but the throwback pass to quarterback Reece Dawson was slightly overthrown.
“I was going for something, trying to spark us,” Roweton said. “It went off our fingertips. You like to execute those things. Sometimes (trick plays) work, sometimes they don’t.”
Willard got the ball back on its own 22 with 2:27 remaining. The Tigers reached the Neosho 34 with about 30 seconds remaining, but turned the ball over on downs again after four straight incompletions.
Willard’s lost three games by seven or fewer points this season. Last year, the Tigers were 4-0 in one-score games.
“Last year, we won every close game,” Roweton said. “This year, we seem to be on the other side of it.
“Really, our issue is this: When you execute at 85 percent, that’s good except it has to be higher in this conference. Everyone’s really good. We have to execute at a higher level so that we can win these close games.”
Garrett Rice had 21 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown for Willard. Maurice Grayer caught five passes for 84 yards.
Friday’s outcome assures Neosho will finish .500 or better for the third time in four seasons, and first time under Miller.
The Wildcats conclude the regular season next week at home against Republic. Willard plays at Branson.
Neosho 21, Willard 14
Neosho 14 0 0 7 — 21
Willard 7 7 0 0 — 14
Neosho – Lyerla 30 run (Ray kick)
Willard – Rice 4 run (Aye kick)
Neosho – Fox 63 run (Ray kick)
Willard – Thompson 32 catch from Dawson (Aye kick)
Neosho – Lyerla 13 run (Ray kick)
Unofficial stat leaders
Passing: Kelly 1-for-2 for 23 yards
Rushing: Fox 11 carries for 120 yards and one touchdown; Lyerla 13 carries for 47 yards and two touchdowns
Receiving: Letts one catch for 23 yards
Passing: Dawson 9-for-18 for 142 yards and one touchdown
Rushing: Rice 21 carries for 94 yards and one touchdown; Dawson seven carries for 45 yards
Receiving: Grayer five catches for 83 yards; Thompson one catch for 32 yards and one touchdown