"D" carries Eagles into second round
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
Offense may get a team into postseason play, but as the old saying goes "defense wins championships."
While the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles are a long way from a championship, they moved a step closer Friday when they shut down the host Aliceville Yellow Jackets 10-6 in the opening round of the Class 3A playoffs.
Both defenses ruled the night. W.S. Neal (9-2) prevailed despite the fact it had just 91 yards of total offense. Meanwhile the Blue Eagles' defense limited Aliceville (8-3) to only 113 yards of offense. The teams were a combined two-for-22 through the air for 31 yards.
"Our defense has played well all season and we didn't expect anything different in this game. Our defense had a shutout as far as I'm concerned. The only points they scored came after we turned the ball over at our two-yard line. We felt if our offense could get a score, the defense would take care of the rest," W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers said.
Aliceville had shut out six of its 10 opponents during the season. That stingy defense was able to do something virtually no other team had been able to do this season, slow down W.S. Neal running back Alphonso Gross.
Gross had to work extra hard for 86 yards on 22 carries, just under four yards an attempt. In fact, the Yellow Jackets limited to Gross to just nine yards on nine attempts in the first half.
"They had a lot of speed on their defensive line and they were beating us up front. We knew Aliceville was the kind of team Alphonso was going to have to crank out three or four yards a carry. Then we had to hope he eventually would break one. That's pretty much what happened," Smothers said.
Both defenses were especially tough in the first half. W.S. Neal had just 17 yards of offense and zero net rushing yards. Aliceville had just 44 yards of offense in the first half, all of which came on the ground.
Defensive struggles such as the one Friday are often determined by turnovers and special teams. Both led to the Yellow Jackets' lone score of the game in the second quarter.
Aliceville punter Jermaine Garner used a 45-yard punt to pin W.S. Neal deep in its own territory at the four-yard line.
A three-yard run by Jeremy Burch moved the ball out to the seven, but on the next play the Blue Eagles had a fumble in their backfield and Aliceville fell on the ball at the two-yard line.
It took just one play for the Yellow Jackets to cash in, as Vonzell Jackson plowed through the middle for the short touchdown run.
A personal foul after the touchdown forced Aliceville kicker Larnell Craig to have to attempt the point after conversion from the 18-yard line instead of the three. That may have made the difference, as Craig's kick was no good. That left the Aliceville lead at 6-0 with 10:54 left in the half.
Other than that series, both teams barely got past midfield in the first half. Aliceville never got past the W.S. Neal 45, while the Blue Eagles were unable to penetrate past the Yellow Jackets' 49.
While Gross' rushing game was held in check in the first half, he came up with a big play on special teams early in the third quarter that started to swing the momentum.
Garner got off a 43-yard punt on Aliceville's opening second half series, but Gross returned it 45 yards to the Yellow Jackets' 37-yard line.
Back-to-back rushing attempts by Gross netted nine yards and drove the ball to the Aliceville 28. The Blue Eagles and their followers then got what Smothers had hoped for prior to the game.
Gross used a bit of a zig-zag move to get to the left sideline and then found nothing but green grass on his way to a 28-yard touchown run to tie the game.
The deadlock did not last long. Spencer Williamson's point after kick gave W.S. Neal a 7-6 lead with 6:04 left in the third quarter.
While special teams set up the Blue Eagles' first score, defense set up the other.
For the second week in a row
Justin Smith proved he could do more than just play quarterback when he picked off Brandon Manning's pass and returned it 40 yards to the Aliceville 19. Smith had an interception return for a touchdown last week at Geneva.
"All season long the assistant coaches begged me to use Justin on defense. We finally did it last week and he's come up big two
games in a row," Smothers said.
Smith came up with a key offensive play moments later when he converted a fourth down and two situation at the Aliceville 11 with a three-yard run to keep the series alive.
The possession would go no farther. In fact, the Blue Eagles were pushed back seven yards before Williamson split the uprights on a 32-yard field goal with 20 seconds left in the quarter. Williamson's kick extended W.S. Neal's lead to 10-6.
Aliceville had three fourth quarter possessions to try and take the lead. The best opportunity was the first. The Yellow Jackets got as close as the W.S. Neal 37 before an incomplete pass and two runs for losses stalled that drive.
The second series was stopped on downs at the Yellow Jackets' 42 with three minutes to go. Aliceville had a second down and one situation before the W.S. Neal defense tightened the clamp.
The final Aliceville opportunity came in the final minute of the game, but that series was stopped when Mario Daniel picked off a pass by Willie Stanton at the W.S. Neal 40-yard line. Daniel returned it 45 yards before he was brought down at the Aliceville 15 with seven seconds to go. A quick kneel down on offense secured the W.S. Neal win.
"This was kind of a typical game for us. We had a lot of penalties (nine) and we didn't get much of a passing game going (one completion). Like
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we've done all season, our players found a way to win," Smothers said.
W.S. Neal will host Montgomery Academy (8-3) Friday at 7 p.m. in the second round. Montgomery Academy advanced with a 22-13 win over Holtville. A home game might not be all "good" for W.S. Neal. Friday's win improved the Blue Eagles to 7-0 on the road this season. W.S. Neal is just 2-2 at home.
"We've played real well on the road all season. We might want to put the players on the bus for a couple of hours before next Friday to get them ready to play. It seems like we've been on the road all season," Smothers said.
W.S. Neal 0 0 10 0 – 10
Aliceville 0 6 0 0 – 6
ALICEVILLE- Jackson 2 yard run (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Gross 28 yard run (Williamson kick)
W.S. NEAL- Williamson 32 yard field goal
First downs: W.S. Neal 6, Aliceville 10
Third down conversions: W.S. Neal 1-9, Aliceville 5-13
Fourth down conversions: W.S. Neal 1-1, Aliceville 0-1
Total yards: W.S. Neal 91 (74 rushing, 17 passing), Aliceville 113 (99 rushing, 14 passing)
Individual rushing: W.S. Neal- Gross 22-86 1TD, Burch 2-6, Smith 8-(-1), Barksdale 1-(-17); Aliceville- Woods 13-48, Colvin 16-44, Jackson 6-18 1TD, Manning 3-(-11)
Individual passing: W.S. Neal- Smith 1-4-17, Barksdale 0-4-0; Aliceville-Manning 0-10-0 1INT, Stanton 1-4-14 1INT
Individual receiving: W.S. Neal- Burch 1-17; Aliceville- Prude 1-14
Individual punting: W.S. Neal- Gross 7-225, 32.1 avg.; Aliceville- Garner 5-188, 37.6 avg.
Penalties: W.S. Neal 9-65, Aliceville 6-65