Eagles valiant effort comes up short at Eufaula
By By BRUCE HIXON – Sports Editor
While their moral victory may have surprised some and satisfied others, it did neither for the W.S. Blue Eagles and especially their rookie head coach.
W.S. Neal was able to go toe to toe with the host Eufaula Tigers from the opening horn to the final buzzer before it finally succumbed 10-7 Friday in the season opener for both teams.
Eufaula figured to be quite a load for the Blue Eagles to handle. In addition to not having to make a 175-mile trip, the perennial Class 5A power Tigers had a veteran roster with 42 juniors and seniors and had knocked off the state's eighth-ranked team in Class 6A (Central-Phenix City) the week before in an exhibition game.
W.S. Neal was able to stay within shouting distance throughout the game thanks to its defense. After a shaky start that saw the Blue Eagles allow 142 yards and 10 points on Eufaula's first three possessions, W.S. Neal allowed just 35 more yards the rest of the game.
Eufaula was even more stingy on defense, as the Blue Eagles managed just 106 yards in offense for the entire game. In fact, W.S. Neal's best "offensive" threat was senior Mario Daniel on kick returns. Daniel set up the Blue Eagles' lone score with a 52-yard kickoff return and also had a 25-yard punt return in the game.
Field position helped set up Eufaula's opening score on its second possession. The Tigers began at the Blue Eagles' 44-yard line and moved all the way to the W.S. Neal 14 thanks largely to Jerrell Jernigan's 21-yard pass to Maurice Jackson.
It looked as if W.S. Neal might dodge the bullet when a third down holding penalty backed up the Tigers to the 27.
In what was probably the biggest play of the game and without a doubt the most controversial, Jernigan launched a pass to the left corner of the endzone. With his body at full extension, Jackson hauled in the catch but landed way out of bounds. Officials ruled Jackson's foot glanced the turf before he went out of bounds and ruled the catch a touchdown. Clayton Slade's point after kick split the uprights and extended Eufaula's lead to 7-0 with 1:24 left in the opening frame.
The Tigers' momentum from that score was quickly snuffed out when Mario Daniel returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards to the Eufaula 28.
Much like Eufaula on the previous possession, a key third down play kept the Blue Eagles possession alive. Faced with a third and 17 from the 35, Eufaula was whistled for a personal foul that resulted in an automatic first down that took the ball to the 20. With the ball still at the 20 three plays later, W.S. Neal converted on third and long again when Marquis Barksdale connected with Keith Weaver on a 12-yard gain for a first and goal at the eight.
After a one-yard gain by Ronald Travis, Daniel cashed in the possession with a seven-yard touchdown dash to the left. Spencer Williamson's PAT kick knotted the score at 7-7 with 10:30 left in the half.
Eufaula followed with what proved to be the decisive scoring possession of the game, which was a 14-play, seven-minute, 60-yard drive that ended when Slade booted a 20-yard field goal with 3:34 left in the half. The Tigers converted one third down and one fourth down and benefited from a defensive pass interference call against the Blue Eagles along the way.
W.S. Neal's special teams and defense gave the Blue Eagles two huge plays in the second half, but failed to take advantage of both.
On the opening possession of the second half, Eufaula punter Deon Steele had his kick blocked by Shaunathan Williams and W.S. Neal took over at the Tigers 43. Two plays later Eufaula's Cornelius Jenkins recovered a fumble in the Blue Eagles backfield to end that threat.
Later in the third quarter W.S. Neal's Cal Daniel recovered a fumble by Jernigan at the Eufaula 47, but the Blue Eagles offense had to punt four plays later.
W.S. Neal's last chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat came with just over two minutes left after a defensive stop.
Starting from its own 39, W.S. Neal got one first down when Barksdale hit Jonathan Alexander with a 14-yard gain to the Eufaula 47.
Two incompletions and a three-yard gain from Barksdale to Ronald Travis set up a fourth down situation where Barksdale was picked off by Damien Wilson.
W.S. Neal will make its home debut Friday when it opens up the Class 3A Region 1 portion of its schedule when it entertains Pike County at 7 p.m. Pike County won its season opener, as it knocked off Booker T. Washington 27-6.
W.S. Neal 0 7 0 0 – 7
Eufaula 7 3 0 0 – 10
EUFAULA- Jackson 27 yard pass from Jernigan (Slade kick)
W.S. NEAL- M. Daniel 7 yard run (Williamson kick)
EUFAULA- Slade 20 yard field goal
First downs: W.S. Neal 6, Eufaula 10
Third down conversions: W.S. Neal 3-11, Eufaula 2-10
Fourth down conversions: W.S. Neal 0-1, Eufaula 2-3
Total yards: W.S. Neal 106 (31 rushing, 75 passing), Eufaula 177 (83 rushing, 94 passing)
Individual rushing: W.S. Neal-M. Daniel 4-23 1TD, Ron. Travis 8-4, Roh. Travis 1-4, Barksdale 7-0, Bailey 1-0; Eufaula- Steele 15-44, Williams 7-30, Jernigan 6-9, Petty 1-4, Crews 1-0, Jackson 4-(-4)
Individual passing: W.S. Neal- Barksdale 10-18-75 1INT; Eufaula- Jernigan 7-11-94 1TD, Jackson 0-3-0
Individual receiving: W.S. Neal- Alexander 3-35, Weaver 2-20, Ron. Travis 2-7, M. Daniel 2-4, Bailey 1-9; Eufaula- Jackson 4-79 1TD, Crews 2-6, Bryan 1-9
Individual punting: W.S. Neal- Danley 6-122, 20.3 avg.; Steele 4-168, 42.0 avg.
Penalties: W.S. Neal 9-89, Eufaula 9-65