Cassville broke on top 14-0, but a pair of costly giveaways allowed the Panthers to tie the game in the closing minutes of the half. The second half was all Wildcats, as David Large's team ran for over 230 yards in just the third and fourth quarters and finished the night with 360 yards on the ground.
The Cassville Nation arrived early to find the field and stadium in immaculate condition. A new section of home bleachers provided seating for an extra 250 patrons, the new bermuda grass field was mowed to sprinting height, and the track sported a new running surface and new paint.
Some things never change. The Wildcats took the field to their classic rock intros from "Enter Sandman" and "Zombie Nation" as radio clips from past deeds of glory echoed from the speakers.
The Mountain Grove Panthers looked undermanned when they filed into the stadium. Steve Ary's team only dressed 40 players for the season opener, while Cassville had 61 players available on the sideline.
The quartet of Cassville captains -- Ricky Nichols, Stanton Stringer, Trey Rose and Justin Pflug -- won the opening coin toss and deferred to the second half. Mountain Grove's Ethan Pridemore returned the Garret Barnes kickoff from the three-yard line out to the 18 before Hayden Prater wrestled him down.
Cassville opened in the power I. A two-yard run by Kreg Myers and a short pass from Nichols to Rose set up a third and three at the 31-yard line. Kyle Brattin gained 12 yards on a toss sweep, and the Wildcats maintained possession.
Brattin tested the Mountain Grove interior, gaining seven on a draw, and then Nichols launched a perfect strike to Stone Phelps down the left sideline for 39 yards to the Panthers' 10-yard line.
"First and goal Wildcats with the ball just inside the 10. Nichols takes the snap, keeps left and finds a crease, dives inside the pylon, TOUCHDOWN CASSVILLE!"
The Barnes PAT punctuated a six-play, 74-yard scoring drive that consumed only 2:14 off the official clock.
After getting rolled at home 40-7 by Cassville last season and now giving up the first score in the rematch, Mountain Grove returned to the field on a mission.
T.J. Dage accepted the Barnes kickoff at the six and sailed all the way out to the 35-yard line. On the opening play of the drive, Anderson kept up the middle on the quarterback draw and broke free into the secondary. Garrett Kirk ran down Anderson at the Cassville eight-yard line to save a touchdown.
The Cassville defense was about to face its first big test of the season. Two running attempts set up a third and goal from the nine as the Wildcats stuffed both plays. Anderson dropped back and lofted a touch pass into the end zone for Dobson, but Ty Craig had perfect coverage and made the interception to kill the scoring threat with 6:28 remaining in the opening quarter.
After an exchange of punts, the Wildcats began a drive at their own 29 as the quarter ticked away. Nichols scrambled for seven, then Brattin ran for a first down, gaining a dozen on the toss sweep. On the final play of the period, Brattin rumbled off right tackle for 32 yards before the Panthers could drag him down at the Mountain Grove 20-yard line.
But the promising drive came apart as the Wildcats fumbled the ball away at the 17-yard line as the second quarter began.
The Cassville defense rose up again, forcing a third and six for the Panthers at their own 21-yard line. Tyler Collins tried to sweep wide but fumbled. Cody Frana alertly scooped up the ball and raced to the Mountain Grove eight-yard line to set up a first-and-goal opportunity.
On third and goal from the one-yard line, Stringer plowed in to score from his fullback position with 9:43 left in the half. Barnes added the PAT to build the lead to 14-0.
Barnes nailed the kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, and the Panthers had to start from their own 20. Collins gained seven on first down and then Anderson moved the chains with a pair of quarterback keepers.
On first and 10 at his own 33, Anderson found tight end George Lada open in the left flat. The 240-pound receiver took the pass in full stride and rumbled down the sideline in front of the Cassville bench. Rose sprinted to catch Lada and finally dragged him down like a steer wrestler. The play covered 50 yards and gave Mountain Grove a first down at the Cassville 17-yard line.
But the Wildcats were equal to the task, and Mountain Grove surrendered the ball on downs when Anderson's fourth down pass sailed incomplete with 6:15 on the second quarter clock.
Brattin struggled for no gain to start the drive, then Nichols lost control of the ball in mid-pitch and the Panthers recovered at the 15-yard line. No defensive heroics this time. Mountain Grove punched the ball into the end zone in six plays with Anderson scoring from five yards out. Ary's PAT cut the Cassville lead to 14-7 at the 2:55 mark.
The Wildcats hurried into their next set of downs, hoping to squeeze out another score before the half ended. Brattin broke off tackle for a 20-yard gain to set up a first down at the Cassville 45.
On the next play, the Wildcats fumbled, and Mountain Grove's Ricky Healey came up with the football and raced down the sideline to the Cassville six-yard line before being driven out of bounds. Anderson kept to the two-yard line on first down and then scored on the next play. Ary's PAT tied the game at 14-14 with just 39 seconds left in the half.
The Wildcats returned to the field with an air of confidence but also a sense of grim determination. Although Cassville would not score with the initial possession of the third quarter, that drive set the tone for the domination that would follow.
Kirk returned the Mountain Grove kickoff out to the 32-yard line, benefiting from a highlight reel block by Stanton Stringer. Nichols directed the offense from the wishbone set for 10 consecutive plays, and the Wildcats marched down the field before giving the ball to the Panthers on downs at the Mountain Grove 36-yard line.
David Large's "rhino" package turned the game into a slugfest on the line of scrimmage and exposed the lack of depth available for the Mountain Grove defense.
The Wildcat defense held the Panthers to three-and-out, and Ary punted away to Rose on fourth and 8 at the 38. Rose returned the kick seven yards to the Cassville 37 with 6:44 to play in the quarter. Kirk squirmed off tackle for five yards on the first play.
"Nichols brings the Wildcats to the line in a hurry and calls signals from the wishbone. He's got the snap, he keeps right with the entire backfield plowing the field for him. Nichols has the sideline, cuts upfield, it's a footrace to the end zone. The defense pulls him down at the one-yard line."
Nichols brought the crowd to its collective feet with his sparkling 57-yard run, and everyone remained standing as the Wildcat signal caller bulled into the end zone behind Justin Pflug on the ensuing quarterback sneak. Barnes connected again, and Cassville opened a 21-14 lead.
Barnes produced another touchback on the kickoff, and Mountain Grove started from the 20. Three plays against the Lance Parnall defense gained nothing, and Ary punted away on fourth and 11.
The Panthers gained a pair of first downs on their ensuing possession but stalled on their side of midfield as the teams swapped ends for the fourth quarter. The punt rolled dead at the Cassville 22-yard line.
The Wildcats finished off the game and the Panthers with a grinding 14-play drive that took almost five minutes off the clock. Running from a variety of sets, the Cassville offense had its way on the 78-yard march to the end zone. The tiring Panthers could not cope with the double reverses, misdirection plays and even a Statue of Liberty from the Boise State playbook.
By the time Kreg Myers crashed off right tackle into the end zone from five yards out, Cassville had three backs with over 100 rushing yards in the game.
The snap on the PAT wobbled, but Barnes adjusted and connected for his fifth PAT of the night.
Cassville's defense smothered Mountain Grove's final possessions, and the Wildcats owned the 35-14 victory.
Cassville stays at home next Friday night to face the Branson Pirates in a non-conference battle. The Pirates dropped a 34-6 decision at Carthage in their season opener. Game time is 7 p.m.