By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Nixa football coach John Perry was reminded by some players this week that Carthage was the one school in the Central Ozark Conference he didn’t have a win against.
That’s not the case any longer.
Connor Knatcal threw a 10-yard touchdown to Noah Engleman in the final two minutes, then connected with Gaven Krans on a two-point conversion and the Eagles emerged with a 22-21 road win in a battle between two powerhouse programs.
“They kept saying I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” Perry recalled. “Them jokers are good, right? That’s a great football team, that’s a great program. To be honest with you, I told the kids before the game (that) win, lose or draw we can go win the Class 6 state championship, they can go win the Class 5 state championship. This is not going to change that for either team. What this was a good measuring stick for both teams to figure out how to get better next week.”
The Class 6 No. 4 Eagles have to feel pretty good after Friday night. Not only did they beat the top-ranked team in Class 5, but Nixa snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Tigers – and held an impromptu celebration in front of the student section before huddling on the field when it was over.
The Eagles (3-0) didn’t lead until the final two minutes and barely even possessed the ball in the first half, though, with Carthage (2-1) content to milk the clock with long, methodical drives.
Luke Gall opened the scoring with a 69-yard run on Carthage’s first possession, but the Eagles answered with a 10-play, 67-yard drive to tie it on a 1-yard plunge by Ramone Green, Jr.
Then Carthage mounted an astounding 22-play, 77-yard drive that lasted 11-and-a-half minutes and featured three fourth-down conversions. It ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by quarterback Cooper Jadwin to make it 14-7.
That was all the scoring in the first half with Carthage holding possession for more than 18 of the 24 minutes and converting 4-of-5 times on fourth down.
“Obviously the only way to slow those guys down is to keep the ball and chew the clock and not give them opportunities,” said Carthage coach Jon Guidie.
“We only gave them two possessions and they got that third one there right at the end of the half,” he said. “That’s what we wanted to do. You can’t hold these guys – they’re too big and they’re too athletic, they’re too explosive – to let them have opportunities. That was our plan coming in was to control the ball and control the clock. Really did a nice job of that.”
Momentum was all in Carthage’s favor in the third quarter after the Tigers forced a 3-and-out and then marched into Nixa territory. But Carthage opted to go for it on a 4th-and-5 from the Nixa 46 and threw incomplete.
With new life, Nixa moved to the Carthage 30 before Clay Kinder intercepted a pass. A pass interference penalty negated the penalty, though, and Knatcal found a sliding Krans fora. 20-yard touchdown on the next play to tie the game.
It didn’t last for long; Carthage went 80 yards and pulled ahead 21-14 with 2:58 left in the third on a 3-yard touchdown by Gall, and Nixa turned it over on downs on its next possession.
Carthage finished the game with a fumble, a punt and an interception on its final three possessions. The punt from the Tigers’ own 6 set up Nixa’s go-ahead drive.
Starting at the Carthage 34, Green, Jr. broke off a 17-yard run on first down. Later, on a 3rd-and-goal from the 10, Knatcal passed to Engelman for a touchdown with 1:57 on the clock.
Perry said the decision to go for two was a “no brainer.”
“They’re a great football team, on the road. We were going to give them our best two-point play and the thing is, (Krans) was covered like a glove, just made a great play,” Perry said. “He wasn’t as open as I thought he was going to be…”
He described Knatcal as “cool as a cucumber” and said Krans is the exact type of athlete he wants in Nixa’s program.
“He’s a guy who’s never played, he’s always worked hard, he’s always showed up and until he was a senior he never touched the field,” he said. “He never complained, he worked, he worked, he worked. He kept paying the dues and now he’s going to have a fantastic year because he’s put himself in the conversation, he’s put himself in that groove. I’m so proud of him because he’s done it the right way.”
Guidie said he expected Nixa to go for two after the touchdown.
“Which was great,” he said. “I thought that would be good because let’s get a stop right there and win the game. They executed the play. They got one more play than we did.”
Jordan Tyler ended any hopes of a Carthage comeback with an interception with 1:29 remaining.
Knatcal completed 14-of-29 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Green, Jr. rushed 21 times for 138 yards and a score. He carried the ball 11 times in the fourth quarter alone.
Jadwin completed 5-of-11 passing attempts for Carthage for 81 yards. Gall rushed 26 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns – he had 74 yards in the final three quarters.