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Neal flexes brawn in win over Straughn

By By SCOTT COOPER – Sports Writer
The W.S. Neal Blue Eagles accomplished two goals with Friday night's 27-20 regional victory over the Straughn Tigers. Most importantly, the win kept the Blue Eagles in the hunt for a playoff spot with only one more regional game remaining against the T.R. Miller Tigers. Probably not as important, but nonetheless just as impressive, was knocking the fourth-ranked Tigers from the unbeaten ranks.
With the win, Neal improved its season record to 5-3 and moved to 4-2 in the region while the loss placed Straughn at 7-1 overall and 5-1 against regional competition.
As the game unfolded, the Blue Eagles found themselves down by a two-touchdown deficit before 20 unanswered points lifted them to a 20-14 halftime lead. From there, Neal controlled play in the second half and stretched the advantage to 27-14 in the fourth quarter. A late touchdown by Straughn closed the gap to 27-20, but the Blue Eagles sealed the win with tough defensive play that came up big in the end.
Following the game, Neal head coach Jim Fountain admitted he was anxious after Straughn jumped ahead to a big lead, but said his team proved something with the comeback.
Marcus Folmar returned the opening kickoff to the Neal 25-yard line. Following a Blue Eagle illegal procedure penalty on the first snap, the Tigers recovered a fumble on the next play at the Neal 17-yard line.
Straughn gained 11 yards on a first down run to the Blue Eagle 6-yard line. With first down and goal from that point, the Tigers gained only two yards on the next three plays. Chris Johnson stuffed a running play for a one yard loss before a second down run gained three yards. Johnson then stopped a third down run for no gain and forced the Tigers to face a fourth down and goal to go from the Neal 4-yard line. Straughn's Hobbs took the pitchout around right end on the fourth down play and broke containment before crossing the goal line. The PAT was good and Straughn led 7-0 with 9:53 left in the opening quarter.
Folmar gave the Blue Eagles excellent field position by returning the ensuing kickoff to the Neal 47-yard line. Three straight Alphonso Gross runs moved the football to the Straughn 42-yard line, but then the Tigers intercepted a pass on the next play and returned it to the 50-yard line.
Keeping the ball on the ground and showing good power and precision, the Tigers took advantage of the turnover by marching down the field to another touchdown. The 10-play drive ended with a 1-yard Samuels touchdown run. The successful PAT made the score 14-0 with 3:41 remaining in the first quarter.
Putting the ball in play at the Neal 24-yard line after the Straughn kickoff, the Blue Eagles showed they intended to do something about the 14-point deficit they faced.
After first down play lost 13 yards before Gross gained a couple on a run. Then, Nick Benjamin lofted a pass that Folmar ran under and caught for an 85-yard touchdown connection. The PAT was missed, but the Blue Eagles had cut into the lead, 14-6, as the teams headed to the second quarter.
After the Neal defense began to assert itself by forcing a punt on Straughn's next possession, the Blue Eagle offense struck again.
On first down from the Neal 39-yard line, Benjamin dropped back to pass and found a streaking Folmar open down the left side of the field. Folmar hauled in the pass before outrunning the Tiger defense for a 61-yard touchdown. Benjamin connected with Roc Herbert across the middle on the two-point conversion pass that tied the score at 14-14 with 10:19 left before halftime.
The teams settled into a defensive struggle over the next several minutes, but the Blue Eagle offense struck again with another big play just before intermission.
With 1:55 left in the half, Neal had possession on the Straughn 48-yard line. Benjamin netted a 7-yard gain on a quarterback keeper before a second down pass attempt fell incomplete. Facing third down and three from the Tiger 41-yard line, Gross took the handoff on a counter trap, cut up the field through a huge hole the Blue Eagle offensive line opened and sped his way into the end zone. The PAT was blocked, making the score 20-14 as the two squads headed to the locker room for the break.
The third quarter was scoreless, although Neal threatened by driving down to the Tiger 16-yard before losing a fumble. Meanwhile, the Blue Eagle defensive unit continued to bottle-up Straughn and kept the Tigers from crossing midfield the entire quarter.
Midway through the fourth quarter, a Blue Eagle drive that began from their own 21-yard line ended with another score that provided the team with some insurance to the lead.
Gross, who gained 159 yards on the night, picked-up seven yards on first down, and then Tristen Elliott added four yards on a run to the 32-yard line. Gross then carried the ball four straight times to the Straughn 48-yard line before Benjamin hit J.J. Pitts in the left flat for a 10-yard gain. On the next play, Gross ran through another big hole opened by Neal's offensive line and raced 38 yards across the goal line. Benjamin split the uprights on the PAT for a 27-14 Blue Eagle advantage with 2:31 remaining in the game.
Straughn quickly answered following the Neal touchdown. Beginning from their 40-yard line, only three plays were needed for the Tigers to tighten the score, as a 25-yard Hendrix reception reduced the lead to 27-20 after the failed PAT.
With 1:55 left on the game clock, Straughn attempted an onside kick that Neal's Herbert recovered. However, the win was not yet completely secured as the Blue Eagles were forced to punt the ball back to Straughn with less a minute remaining.
The Blue Eagle defense, though, would have none of a last-gasp Straughn comeback. A first down Tiger pass was completed to the Straughn 36-yard line before two incompletions gave Straughn time for one more snap. As the Straughn quarterback faded back to pass, Neal's Johnson broke through to register a game-ending sack that put the wraps on the win.