Fourth quarter rally lifts eagles past Geneva
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
Regardless of score, there is a reason why the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles are never out of any contest. That reason is senior running back Alphonso Gross.
Gross has had several great games in his high school career, but he may have turned in his best Friday when he rallied the Blue Eagles to a stunning 32-23 road victory over the Geneva Panthers.
The 5-9, 180-pound Gross amassed 346 yards rushing on 27 carries with touchdown runs of 18, 80, 71 and three yards.
Just as amazing as Gross' numbers was W.S. Neal's comeback. The Blue Eagles trailed 23-7 with less than 10 minutes to play before they strung together 25 unanswered points, most of which came from the legs of Gross.
"We're never out of a game with Alphonso back there because he has the ability to go the distance on any play. He is one of the best in the state and I wouldn't trade him for anything," W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers said.
Gross started the Blue Eagles down the comeback trail when he broke loose for an 80-yard touchdown run with 9:46 to go that sliced the Geneva lead to 23-13.
After a quick stop by the W.S. Neal defense, Gross turned in another electrifying move when he scored on a 71-yard run. That touchdown left W.S. Neal down just 23-19 with 6:57 still left on the clock.
Defense also played a role in the Blue Eagles' comeback. Geneva turned the ball over on the first play from scrimmage after Gross' second long touchdown run when Jake Bailey picked off a pass by Robert Cox.
Bailey's play gave W.S. Neal great field position at the Geneva 25-yard line. The Blue Eagles then went back to, who else but Gross. Gross needed six consecutive carries before he scored on a three-yard run with 3:46 to go. In a mater of six minutes, the Blue Eagles had gone from down 23-7 to in front 25-23.
There was still plenty of time for the Panthers to strike back, especially with their air game. Cox completed 16 of 39 passes for 253 yards, but he was intercepted three times.
The last of those picks ended any comeback hopes the Panthers may have had when Justin Smith saw nothing but green grass on his way to a 44-yard return for a touchdown with 3:26 left. Spencer Williamson's point after kick gave W.S. Neal a two-score lead of 32-23.
"We made some good adjustments at halftime against their passing game. Cox was 12-for-20 in the first half against us, but only four-for-19 in the second half," Smothers said.
Prior to the fireworks over the last 10 minutes, W.S. Neal (8-2) made plenty of mistakes. The Blue Eagles committed three turnovers and 10 penalties. Another key statistic was third down conversions. Geneva (5-5) converted its first six third down opportunities and was only two dropped passes away from a perfect 10-for-10 in that situation for the first half. W.S. Neal did not convert on third down until the fourth quarter.
"We had mistakes across the board on offense, defense and special teams. We had a nice opening drive, but it stalled after a penalty. After that everything got out of sync. As bad as things got, our players didn't give up and they won't give up," Smothers said.
The Panthers strung together a 13-play, 73-yard drive on their opening series of the game to take the lead. While most of that yardage came through the air, it was a three-yard keeper by Cox that put Geneva on the board. Brian Haney's point after kick made it 7-0 with 3:36 left in the first quarter.
Disaster hit the Blue Eagles on their following series when they fumbled the ball in their backfield and Geneva's J.D. Crews fell on it in the endzone for a touchdown. Haney's kick made it 14-0 with 2:56 left in the quarter.
The Panthers missed an opportunity to extend that lead midway through the second quarter. A 43-yard pass from Cox to Cal Townsend set up a 30-yard field goal attempt for Haney, but his kick sailed wide left.
The Blue Eagles got a bit of a break on special teams later in the quarter when a five-yard punt by Jeremy Brock gave W.S. Neal good field position at the Panthers' 46-yard line.
Gross gave a preview of what was to come later with a 28-yard run and then an 18-yard touchdown run. Williamson's PAT cut the Panthers lead to 14-7 with 2:28 left in the half.
Cox made sure it would not stay that way before the half was over. He completed three passes for 24 yards and had four carries for 19 yards. Another key play was a pass interference call against W.S. Neal. That combination set up a 28-yard field goal by Haney on the final play of the half that extended Geneva's lead to 17-7.
The second half began with back-to-back turnovers. W.S. Neal's Mario Daniel intercepted a pass by Cox on the first play from scrimmage. On the very next play Crews recovered his second fumble of the game to give the ball back to the Panthers.
That turned into a costly mistake for the Blue Eagles. Cox hit Townsend, who broke a tackle on his way to a 50-yard touchdown pass. The extra point failed to keep the Panthers' lead at 23-7 with 11:32 left in the period.
While Geneva's season came to a close, it was the W.S. Neal's final tuneup before Friday's 7 p.m. Class 3A playoff contest at Aliceville.
"It's a tough game because we've got a long trip and Aliceville has a strong team. On the other hand we've been a very good road team this season (Friday's win improved W.S. Neal to 6-0 away from home this season). Our players are looking forward to the challenge," Smothers said.
W.S. Neal 0 7 0 25 – 32
Geneva 14 3 6 0 – 23
GENEVA- Cox 2 yard run (Haney kick)
GENEVA- Crews fumble recovery in endzone (Haney kick)
W.S. NEAL- Gross 18 yard run (Williamson kick)
GENEVA- Haney 28 yard field goal
GENEVA- Townsend 50 yard pass from Cox (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Gross 80 yard run (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Gross 71 yard run (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Gross 3 yard run (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Smith 44 yard interception return (Williamson kick)
First downs: W.S. Neal 12, Geneva 12
Third down conversions: W.S. Neal 2-6, Geneva 10-17
Fourth down conversions: W.S Neal 0-1, Geneva 0-2
Total yards: W.S. Neal 415 (415 rushing, 0 passing); Geneva 296 (43 rushing, 253 passing)
Individual rushing: W.S. Neal- Gross 27-346 4TD, Burch 7-64, Smith 2-13, Barksdale 5-(-8); Geneva- Cox 17-25 1TD, Wallace 1-15, Precise 2-5, Dennard 7-(-2)
Individual passing: W.S. Neal- Barksdale 0-5-0, Smith 0-1-0; Geneva- Cox 16-39-253 1TD 3INT
Individual receiving: W.S. Neal- none; Geneva- Townsend 6-115 1TD, Calhoun 4-51, Ward 3-62, Simmons 2-23, Free 1-2
Individual punting: W.S. Neal- Herbert 3-106, 35.3 avg.; Geneva- Brock 4-105, 26.3 avg.
Penalties: W.S. Neal 10-80, Geneva 3-15