Branson's beleagured offense had a chance to make a game of it in the fourth quarter against Cassville. Instead, the Wildcat defense trapped Malachi Daniels in the backfield for a loss of four yards on fourth and goal from inside the one-yard line, and Cassville held on for a 14-7 victory at Pirate Field on Friday night.
The perception of this game is that of a David vs Goliath contest, based mostly on the different classifications of the two schools, and the fact that Class 5 Branson defeated Cassville in both the 2008 and 2009 seasons when the Wildcats went on to win the Class 3 state title.
The sense of urgency during the pregame lay more heavily on Branson. A loss to Cassville would give them an 0-2 start for the season with their next game on the road at powerful Webb City.
Cassville entered the game with a 15-game winning streak that reached all the way back to the 42-13 loss to Branson in the 2009 season opener.
Cassville's Garrett Barnes, easily identifiable by his neon green shoes, buried the opening kickoff for a touchback. Branson self-destructed on its first possession with a costly holding penalty, and Isaac Johnston punted on fourth and 18 from the Pirate 12-yard line. The ball appeared to hit a Cassville player and a scramble ensued, but the officials signaled Wildcat ball when they dug through the pile.
Cassville opened in the I-formation, and Trenton Tanner blasted for nine yards to the Branson 45 on first down.
"Cassville football in Branson territory at the 45, second down and inches. Nichols has the snap, he fakes the belly handoff, keeps off right tackle, he's got a seam in the secondary, TOUCHDOWN CASSVILLE."
Nichols put the Wildcats out in front, capping a two-play drive with his 45-yard TD sprint. Barnes added the PAT, and Cassville led 7-0 with 9:11 to play in the opening quarter.
Cassville's defense shredded the Pirate offensive line in the first two quarters of play. Branson managed only a single first down in the first half and reached Cassville's side of the field on only one possession. But the teams reached halftime with the score still 7-0 as the Wildcats missed on several scoring opportunities.
Cassville fans saw a potential touchdown pass dropped in the end zone late in the first period, and then the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs at the Branson 27-yard line to end that same drive.
Chris Smith intercepted Branson's Cameron Chancey in the second quarter and returned the theft to the Branson 48. On fourth and 11 at the Pirate 27, Nichols hit Smith for an apparent touchdown pass, but the score was wiped out by a holding penalty. The Wildcats were forced to punt with just 2:15 left on the clock
The Cassville defense held Branson to a three-and-out, and Tanner returned Johnston's punt to the Pirate 36-yard line with one minute remaining.
After a penalty set up first and 15 at the 41, Nichols tossed a screen pass to Tanner that netted 19 yards to the 22. But a fumble on the following play spoiled any scoring hopes, and the teams adjourned to halftime with Cassville holding that same 7-0 lead.
Back to basics
"We didn't make a lot of changes at halftime," recalled Nichols after the game. "We just needed the offensive line to get a push up front to open up some room."
Branson's Fernando Cendeno punched a worm-killing kickoff past the Cassville returners for a touchback to open the third quarter.
Two running plays established a third and five situation at the Wildcat 25-yard stripe.
"The Wildcats face third down and five at their own 25 early in the third quarter. Nichols sets them in the I, Lewright is spread wide right. Nichols drops back to pass, he takes a shot long downfield for Lewright, HE MAKES THE CATCH!"
Josh Lewright's reception was good for 47 yards and a first down at the Branson 28.
Tanner ran for five yards on first down, and then Nichols slashed for nine more to the Pirate 14.
The automatic cheer rose from the Wildcat Nation, "And that's another Cassville Wildcat...FIRST DOWN!"
"Cassville football deep in Branson territory, first and 10 at the Pirate 14 on this long drive. Brattin and Tanner line up behind Nichols in the I, Nichols reads the option, hands to Brattin, he breaks free, TOUCHDOWN CASSVILLE!"
The Pirates desperately drove into Cassville territory on the following drive but turned the ball over on downs when they failed to convert a fourth and 17 at the Wildcat 36-yard line. Cassville lost six yards in three plays and punted the ball right back to the Pirates with 5:16 left in the third period.
Starting at their own 31, the Pirates stormed down the field as the quarter ended. Branson converted on fourth down twice to keep the drive alive, and Chancey plunged inside the one-yard line on the 14th play of the drive to set up the pivotal fourth and goal play.
Branson lined up in the power I but instead of running the expected quarterback sneak or feeding the fullback up the middle, Chancey stutter-stepped and pitched the ball to Daniels off right tackle. Tanner knifed through from his linebacker position and nailed Daniels for a loss all the way back to the five-yard line.
Branson finally scored several possessions later. Daniels turned the corner on a sweep and broke loose for a 47-yard gain to the Cassville two-yard line. He scored on the next play, and Cendeno's PAT cut the lead to 14-7 with 1:52 remaining in the game.
But time had become as much an enemy for Branson as the Wildcats by then.
Cassville's David Large sent out the hands team for the obvious onside kick situation, and Bo Blisard dove and covered up Cendeno's kick at the Branson 49. The Wildcats forced the Pirates to burn their final time out, as Stanton Stringer plunged for a first down. Nichols took a knee in the victory formation as the clock expired, and Cassville owned a 14-7 victory over Branson.
"This was a great win," said Coach Large to his team as they huddled at the north end of the stadium near the deserted Pirate ship. "We did a great job defensively, and the special teams performed great."
The Cassville offense was held in check on the night except for the two scoring drives. After amassing 371 yards of total offense against Mountain Grove, the Wildcats struggled against an inspired Branson defense.
Unofficially, Cassville had 171 yards rushing on 33 carries as a team. Nichols ran for 78 yards on 12 carries to lead the 'Cats, and Tanner had 64 yards on 13 totes. Both Nichols and Kyle Bratttin scored on the ground for Cassville. Nichols was efficient in the passing department, completing five of nine attempts for 80 yards and no interceptions.
Against Mountain Grove, Cassville totaled 262 yards with its ground game and added 109 more through the air.
The Cassville defense limited Branson's big-play threat, Malachi Daniels, to only 96 yards on 16 carries. The one 47-yard carry on Branson's scoring drive accounted for almost half of Daniels' total. He also scored the lone Pirate touchdown.
Devin Linenbrink returned to the Cassville lineup after missing the season opener with an injury. The All-State linebacker recorded 10 tackles in his first action of the season.
The Wildcats will remain at the top of the Class 3 rankings as they head into their first home game of the season on Sept. 10. Cassville will host Prairie Grove, Ark., on Friday night at 7 p.m.
Big 8 scores
In week 2 action involving other Big 8 Conference schools, Logan-Rogersville topped Monett, 26-18, Aurora defeated Lamar, 12-9, Strafford beat East Newton, 36-8, Seneca shut out Nevada, 42-0, and Mt. Vernon outlasted Carl Junction, 41-28.