Make room for the Eagles

Published 4:53 pm Monday, October 23, 2006

By BY BRUCE HIXON – sports editor
Smith scores six TDs as WSN secures postseason berth
The W.S. Neal defense may not have had a lot of answers on how to stop the Jackson Aggies offense. Then again, Jackson's defense had even fewer answers on how to stop the Blue Eagles offense.
W.S. Neal successful tactics were to outgain, outscore and most importantly outlast the Aggies 54-39 Friday at Jackson's Legion Field.
It was the most important win of the season for the Blue Eagles (6-2 overall and 4-2 in Class 4A Region 1), as they wrapped up their first playoff berth since 2003.
While W.S. Neal is guaranteed a road trip in the opening round of postseason play, Blue Eagles coach Blaine Hathcock is more than happy to fuel up the bus.
Friday's game against the Aggies was the toughest test for W.S. Neal in what has now reached a four-game winning streak. Jackson (3-5 overall and 2-4 in region play) could have all wrapped up a postseason berth with a win. Instead the Aggies will be watching the playoffs from the stands.
In addition to scoring 54 points, the fourth straight week W.S. Neal has scored at least 40 points, the Blue Eagles exhausted the Jackson defense for 573 yards of offense. Senior quarterback Marquis Barksdale completed 11 of 15 passes for 244 yards. Running back Justin Smith had 247 yards of combined offense, 180 rushing and 67 receiving, and scored six touchdowns. Backfield teammate Nykeem Barton had 181 yards of offense with 138 rushing and 43 more receiving.
W.S. Neal needed most of that production to offset Jackson quarterback Kent Meyer, who completed 27 of 38 passes for 308 yards and six touchdowns.
Despite the final score and yardage numbers, it took a while for the high-octane offenses to kick in.
W.S. Neal, which never punted in the game, had just a 6-0 lead after a quarter. The Blue Eagles took their opening possession and went 73 yards on 10 plays. The Blue Eagles' first play from scrimmage was perhaps an omen of things to come when Barksdale hit Justin Howard for a 38-yard gain. Another sign of things to come came when Smith capped off the drive with a one-yard plunge.
One carryover problem for the Blue Eagles from the previous week against Hillcrest was their conversion game. The Blue Eagles missed four conversions in that contest, three by kicks. W.S. Neal failed on five conversions against Jackson, which include a failed kick attempt on the first one that left its lead at 6-0 with 4:14 left in the first quarter.
The Blue Eagles struck again on the first play of the second quarter when Barksdale hit Jonathan Alexander on a 61-yard touchdown strike down the right sideline. Again, the conversion failed, this time on a run attempt that kept the Blue Eagles' lead at 12-0.
While W.S. Neal's special teams struggled with its kicking game, it came up with a big play after its defense produced its only three-and-out of the Jackson offense on the ensuing series. Aggies punter DeMarcus Besteda was unable to get his kick off and was eventually dropped for an eight-yard loss at the Jackson 29-yard line.
Barksdale hit Alexander on an 18-yard gain and Smith followed with an 11-yard run to the endzone. The Blue Eagles finally made a conversion when Alexander made a diving catch of a pass from Barksdale in the left corner of the endzone to make it 20-0 with 9:32 left in the half.
While the W.S. Neal offense was efficient, it was not perfect. The Blue Eagles offense set up Jackson's first score when James Harrell recovered a fumble by Smith at the Blue Eagles' 28-yard line.
Meyer responded with the first of his six touchdown throws, this one to DeMarcus Besteda from 28 yards out. Like the Blue Eagles, the Aggies also had their share of conversion problems. Jackson failed on four of six conversion attempts, which included a missed kick by J.D. Mitchell after the first score that left W.S. Neal's lead at 20-6 with 4:32 left in the half.
Nykeem Barton's 52-yard kickoff return put W.S. Neal's offense in business again. Barksdale threw his second touchdown pass of the half, this one to Smith for a 32-yard toss. Barksdale also threw a successful two-point pass to Howard that swelled the Blue Eagles' lead to 28-6 with 3:27 left in the half.
Jackson also quickly responded. The Aggies got a 35-yard pass from Meyer to DeMarcus Besteda to set up a 15-yard touchdown pass from Meyer to Will Stevens. W.S. Neal's lead remained at 28-12 when it stopped Andrew Ezell's two-point conversion run attempt with 1:36 left in the half.
It looked as if the Blue Eagles might not leave a lot of suspense in the outcome when they opened the second half with a 23-yard touchdown run by Smith. Although the conversion kick failed, W.S. Neal had regained its largest lead of the game at 34-12 with 8:04 left in the third quarter.
It did not take long for the Aggies to battle back. Meyer threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Roper on the ensuing series and Ezell ran in the conversion to make it 34-20.
Jackson's defense made one of its few standout plays moments later when Mike Austin picked off a Barksdale pass. The Aggies cashed the turnover into a touchdown when Meyer threw a 10-yard strike to Roper. Mitchell's PAT kick suddenly narrowed W.S. Neal's lead to 34-27 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter.
As he did throughout the night, Smith drove a dagger into the Aggies when scored on a 42-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter. Barksdale ran in the conversion to make it 42-27.
It was not just on offense where Smith made an impact. He followed up his touchdown with an interception of a Meyer pass and a 14-yard touchdown reception off a Barksdale pass. Although the conversion failed, the Blue Eagles had a comfortable three-score lead again of 48-27 with only 6:51 left.
W.S. Neal visits T.R. Miller Friday at 7 p.m.

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