Republic punched early and Ozark countered late on Saturday afternoon. A 25-7 Republic third quarter lead had all but collapsed by by 8:38 mark of the fourth quarter when Ozark's Bradley Bonewell rumbled across the goalline for his third touchdown of the game.
Momentum had swung, the visitor side was loud, but Riley Watkins didn’t care. The Republic junior quarterback converted a controversial 3rd and 4 on the following drive (a pass that many on the Ozark side felt hit the ground), followed that up with a 20+-yard scamper and absorbed three hits on a touchdown run from inside the Ozark 10 yard line to give Republic a 10-point cushion with 3:50 to play.
Ozark’s Tigers would drive down over the next 2:50 to cut that lead to three on a touchdown pass from Jack Hulse to Curt Gracey, but the onside kick failed. With Ozark having just one timeout to burn, Republic took a knee on its biggest win of the season after dropping three in a row to ranked opponents in #4 Carl Junction (Class 4), #8 Webb City (Class 4) and #5 Nixa (Class 5).
“We’ve done a lot the last couple weeks to try to modify some things to take advantage of some of the talent that we have, and I think that was a big part [this win],” Republic head coach Wes Beachler said. “We have some guys who can stretch the defense. We thought if we can take some shots in the passing game early and maybe loosen them up in the box we’d have more success moving the ball.”
The gameplan worked. Watkins found holes in the Ozark defense all afternoon, totaling 170 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Watkins also hit Bobby Finley in the endzone to open scoring for Republic and added a second touchdown pass to David Feil, a score that gave Republic an 18-7 lead late in the first half.
Ozark led 7-0 after Bonewell scored from the four yard line following a botched punt attempt by Republic. Republic took its first lead at 12-7 when Watkins ran a zone read up the middle between his guards 11 seconds into the second quarter.
“All we lost from last year’s line was both tackles, so we challenged the line to step up and be as physical as they were last year when we were averaging 33.5 points per game,” Beachler said.
Coming into the game, Ozark had given up 20+ points JUST once this season—a 25-20 loss to Neosho in Week 2.
“Ozark’s defense isn’t a joke,” Watkins said. “They came out and beat Carl Junction. But us playing four very dominant defensive teams really helped us prepare for today.”
Dominant and physical defensive teams, and now it seems that Republic has either adopted that physicality or discovered some of its own.
“They just got after us physically in the first half,” Ozark head coach Chad Depee said. “When you start [being physical], you’ll have a lot of things open up for you. They were more physical than us on both sides of the ball and it kind of rattled us.
“We were just never comfortable in the first half and it showed. Hats off to Republic and their staff and kids. They came out and they were ready to play.”
Bonewell rushed for 88 yards on Saturday. His second score cut Ozark’s lead to 25-14.
Feil put Republic up 25-7 in the third quarter on a five-yard touchdown run.
“Republic did exactly what they needed to do,” Depee said. “They kept their offense on the field, kept moving the chains and played inspired football. What we have to do is just continue to grow from this and get a little more seasoned from it. You can’t play two quarters and win ballgames in the COC.”
If there was a silver lining for Ozark, it was seeing a young team respond to adversity for the first time all season, and seeing them handle it very well.
“We’re a young team, and this is kind of the first time where things had really gone south for us and we had to regroup,” Depee said. “It was good for us to at least see the growth of our kids and see them come back and get some momentum and score.”
Ozark outgained Republic 332-329 but turned the ball over twice to Republic’s one. Ozark also held the advantage in first downs (27-26) and rush yards (251-240).
“We just knew we had to keep coming out and doing our thing,” Watkins said. “Keep executing. Keep grinding out four or five yards. Today was not a big-play football game.”
Republic visits a Neosho team next Friday that’s coming off back-to-back loss to Carl Junction and Nixa, both on the road.
“Neosho isn’t any easier than anyone we’ve played,” Beachler said. “It has been a brutal schedule, but our whole schedule is going to be like that. It’s prepared us because we’re a physical team and we’ve played physical teams, and it made us step up our physicality today.”