By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
NEOSHO, Mo. – With a chance to play for its first district title since 2009 on the line, the Neosho football team set the tone early.
The Wildcats opened with a 10-play, 68-yard scoring drive that featured two third-down conversions and took five minutes from the clock.
It was a sign of things to come as Neosho rolled Marshfield 35-7 Friday night in the Class 4 District 6 semifinals at Bob Anderson Stadium.
“You’ve got to move the chains,” Neosho head coach Leon Miller said. “Sometimes that’s the mentality. You’ve just got to move the chains. Our kids, we’ve been preaching it all year long. Big plays are nice but if you move the chains, a lot of good things can happen for you.”
The Wildcats moved the chains all night long and were especially effective on third down – Neosho converted on 5-of-6 third down plays in the first half, while limiting Marshfield to 1-of-4.
Neosho recorded 11 first downs in the first half despite having just three possessions. The Wildcats scored every time and led 21-0 at the half.
Quarterback Gage Kelley did most of the damage for Neosho early. He ran for three touchdowns, each from inside the 5-yard line, capping drives of 68, 21 and 80 yards for the Wildcats.
“With their offense, we’ve seen on film they can be pretty explosive and they can score a lot of points in a hurry,” Miller said. “We needed to come out and establish that, kind of get our feet under us and let our defense go to work.”
And Miller’s defense was terrific; Neosho limited an opponent to a touchdown or less for the fourth time in 11 games.
Quincey Willis intercepted a pass in the end zone by Marshfield quarterback Brock Utecht to derail a promising first drive for the Blue Jays that started at their own 30 and advanced to the Neosho 17. Brennan Espy rushed to the 5 on a first down play, but a holding backed Marshfield up to the 21. Two plays later Willis came up with the interception.
“Huge – that was a huge play by Quincey,” Miller said. “That shut down the momentum from there.”
In the second quarter, Neosho’s Sam Cook picked off a Utecht pass at the Marshfield 21, setting up an easy five-play scoring drive that made it 14-0 with 6:54 left in the half.
Cook blocked a punt early in the third quarter that gave the Wildcats possession at the Marshfield 13, and while they couldn’t score, they turned it into good field position on their next drive after forcing a punt from the 13.
That led to a 54-yard scoring drive capped by a 6-yard Donnie Fox touchdown at the 2:33 mark of the third quarter. Mason Ray’s extra point made it 28-0.
After the Blue Jays turned it over on downs in Neosho territory, Kelley threw deep to Tre’Von Letts who raced in for a 54-yard touchdown and a 35-0 lead.
Marshfield was stopped again on fourth down, this time in the red zone. The Blue Jays stopped the running clock later in the fourth when Utecht threw to a diving Truett Gardner in the end zone with 1:58 left in the game.
“We knew they were big and physical and could grind it out,” Marshfield coach Cody Bull said. “I thought we would play a little better offensively and we did at times. Penalties hurt us. We had a couple turnovers. You make little mistakes against good teams in the playoffs and things like that happen.”
“We made some mistakes early and kind of dug ourselves a hole against a team who can kill a lot of clock,” Bull said. “They’re very well coached. They’re physical. It wasn’t our night. Hat’s off to Neosho. I’m just so proud of this group and our seniors and where our program is headed. It’s been an awesome year. I’m going to dwell on what we’ve done and we’ll go back and look at things later.”
The loss snapped a six-game winning streak for Marshfield, which was seeded third in the district. The Blue Jays finish the year with an 8-3 record.
Second seed Neosho, now 8-3, hiked its win streak to five games. The Wildcats will be rewarded with a game at top-seeded Webb City next week for the district championship.
“I’ve said all along I’m happy for these kids,” Miller said. “They work hard, play hard. They’re a good group of kids. We’re going to go play for a district championship next week.”