Special teams, turnovers send Eagles down to defeat
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
The first play of the game was an omen. The last play of the game summed up the night. In between, things were not much better for the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles, as they were clawed 43-13 by the visiting Eufaula Tigers Friday in the season opener for both teams.
Mistakes on special teams were probably the biggest downfall for the Blue Eagles. W.S. Neal allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, a bad snap on a punt attempt that resulted in a safety and another botched punt attempt that set up another Eufaula touchdown.
All those miscues occurred in the first half, which resulted in 23 points and a 30-13 halftime lead for the visitors.
It was not just special teams miscues that helped beat W.S. Neal. The Blue Eagles turned the ball over five times through four interceptions and a fumble. Two of those turnovers were returned for touchdowns.
"The special teams and turnovers just killed us," W.S. Neal coach Shane Smothers. "I don't think the final score is indicative of what kind of a game it was. Our kids played hard. Their kids played hard. You just can't make the number of mistakes we made against a team like that or anybody for that matter."
Most fans had not even settled into their seats when Eufaula's James Carter returned the opening kickoff back 81 yards for a touchdown. Jesse Ebersole's point after kick was good and just like that it was 7-0 15 seconds into the game.
While W.S. Neal certainly had its share of mistakes, so did Eufaula. The Tigers turned the ball over six times through five lost fumbles and an interception. Eufaula also committed 12 penalties for 85 yards.
The Blue Eagles took advantage of the first of those turnovers midway through the first quarter when Ben Crane scooped up a fumble and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown. Josh Danley's point after kick tied the game at 7-7 with 6:21 left in the opening frame.
After a quick three-and-out defensive stand, W.S. Neal followed with one of the few sustained offensive drives by either team.
The Blue Eagles drove 51 yards over seven plays and converted when Mario Daniel dashed in from three yards out on a run to the right. The key play in the series came one play earlier when Cory Freeman hauled in a 22-yard pass reception from Daniel Hodge on a third-and-12 situation.
Although Danley's PAT kick was blocked, W.S. Neal had a 13-7 lead with 1:53 left in the first quarter.
"I felt at that time we started to have Eufaula on the ropes a little bit. You could see their players hanging their heads," Smothers said.
The Blue Eagles dodged a few bullets in the first quarter, but those bullets started to make contact in the second frame.
The first one came when Hodge had to punt from the back of his endzone. A high snap glanced off Hodge's hands and off the goal post for a safety that cut the lead to 13-9 with 10:58 left in the first half.
Later in the quarter another miscue on a punt attempt had the same impact as a turnover when Hodge had to fall on the ball after a low snap at the W.S. Neal 32.
That mistake led to a 17-yard touchdown pass from Maurice Jackson to Carter on a slant pass across the middle. However, perhaps an even bigger play came three plays before that when Carter hauled in a 23-yard reception from Jackson on a second-and-23 that gave the Tigers a first down.
"That pass on the second-and-23 may have been the biggest play of the game. If we had kept them out on that series, we still had the lead and who knows what might have happened after that," Smothers said.
Even though the point after kick was no good, Eufaula now had a 15-13 lead with 3:20 left in the half.
Things quickly fell apart for W.S. Neal after that. Less than two minutes later Ben Petty returned a punt 41 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers then caught the Blue Eagles by surprise on the conversion with a fake kick that resulted in a two-point pass from Jackson to Keone Curry to make it 23-13 at the 1:39 mark.
It went from bad to worse when Eufaula's Carter scored his third touchdown of the half, this one on the defensive side, when he picked off a Hodge pass and returned it 68 yards for another touchdown. Ebersole's kick made it 30-13 headed into the half.
W.S. Neal had its share of opportunities to get back in the game in the second half, as it started drives in Eufaula territory three times. Each time the Blue Eagles got turned away.
For the most part, the W.S. Neal defense bent but did not break against the Tigers. Something snapped though early in the fourth quarter when Curry broke loose for an 87-yard touchdown run down the right sideline. Ebersole's PAT kick made it 37-13 with 10:53 left.
Perhaps the night was best summed up for the Blue Eagles on the game's final play when Terance Thomas snatched up a fumble and returned it 58 yards for one final touchdown.
W.S. Neal will kick off the Class 3A Region 1 season Friday when they travel to defending Class 3A state champ Pike County for a 7:30 p.m. contest. Pike County also lost its season opener Friday when it was blanked by Class 5A member Booker T. Washington 18-0.
At W.S. Neal
Eufaula 7 23 0 13 – 43
W.S. Neal 13 0 0 0 – 13
EUFAULA- Carter 81 yard kickoff return (Ebersole kick)
W.S. NEAL- Crane 62 yard fumble recovery return (Danley kick)
W.S. NEAL- Daniel 4 yard run (kick failed)
EUFAULA- safety (ball snapped out of endzone on punt attempt)
EUFAULA- Carter 17 yard pass from Jackson (kick failed)
EUFAULA- Petty 41 yard punt return (Curry pass from Jackson)
EUFAULA- Carter 68 yard interception return (Ebersole kick)
EUFAULA- Curry 87 yard run (Ebersole kick)
EUFAULA- Thomas 58 yard fumble recovery return (no conversion attempt)
First downs: W.S. Neal 12, Eufaula 10
Third down conversions: W.S. Neal 4-12, Eufaula 3-8
Fourth down conversions: W.S. Neal 0-1, Eufaula 1-1
Total yards: W.S. Neal 143 (84 rushing, 59 passing), Eufaula 315 (248 rushing, 67 passing)
Individual rushing: W.S. Neal- J. Smith 10-60, B. Freeman 1-16, Biddle 2-13, Ron. Travis 10-10, Hodge 4-(-4), Daniel 5-(-11) 1TD; Eufaula- Curry 6-112 1TD, Jackson 6-48, Steele 5-26, Glover 4-21, Cates 4-13, J. Jernigan 3-12, Parker 4-8, Jenkins 1-6, Williams 1-2, Petty 2-0
Individual passing: W.S. Neal- Hodge 5-5-22-59 4INT; Eufaula- Jackson 3-8-67 1TD, 1INT, Jernigan 0-1-0
Individual receiving: W.S. Neal- Alexander 3-26, C. Freeman 1-22, Andrews 1-11; Eufaula- Carter 2-40 1TD, E. Jernigan 1-27
Individual punting: W.S. Neal- Hodge 1-33, 33.0 avg., Biddle 2-71, 35.5 avg., Andrews 1-30, 30.0 avg.; Eufaula- Jackson 3-104, 34.7 avg.
Penalties: W.S. Neal 4-40, Eufaula 12-85