T-Birds find offensive life in second half, give O'Neal first win

Cole Branson runs for score, throws three TD passes to brother Wyatt

— For a North Callaway offense that staggered into halftime without any points, a meager 89 net yards and a quarterback gathering grass stains, the contrast was striking.

Emphasis on striking.

Sparked by senior quarterback Cole Branson and his younger brother, sophomore wide receiver Wyatt, the Thunderbirds busted out a quartet of big plays in the second half to rally for their first win of the season, 27-6 over the Tipton Cardinals on Friday night.

The comeback was also made possible by a gritty effort from the North Callaway defense, which held Tipton scoreless in the second half and allowed the Cardinals only 59 total yards over the final 24 minutes.

“I think we’re getting there; it took another talking to them at halftime to get them motivated and get them going,” said Kevin O’Neal, who logged his first victory as the Thunderbirds’ first-year head coach. “Slowly but surely, it’s a work in progress and hopefully we’ll continue to improve every week.”

Tipton was looking to build on its 6-0 edge when it took the opening kickoff of the third quarter and drove to North Callaway’s 30-yard line. However, a pair of penalties pushed the Cardinals back to the Thunderbirds’ 43 and Tipton was forced to punt three plays later.

On the second play of North Callaway’s possession, Cole Branson — who was sacked five times in the first half — shifted left away from pressure, made it to the perimeter and bolted 81 yards down the Thunderbirds’ sideline for a touchdown. Junior kicker Quintin Nichols’ extra-point attempt was blocked, but North Callaway (1-1) had pulled even with 4 minutes, 59 seconds left in the third quarter.

After the Thunderbirds’ defense forced the Cardinals to go three-and-out on their next series, the Branson brothers tormented Tipton (0-2) on the first of their three scoring connections. On North Callaway’s first play, Wyatt darted free down the middle of the field behind the Cardinals’ secondary and Cole lofted the pass into his hands for a 67-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.

Cole Branson then ran in the two-point conversion to put the Thunderbirds in front at 14-6 with 2:08 to go in the quarter.

Tipton answered with a drive deep into North Callaway territory that carried over into the start of the fourth quarter. However, on a fourth-and-2 at the Thunderbirds’ 36, senior linebacker Michael Pezold stood up Cardinals junior running back Ryan Wood for a 1-yard loss and North Callaway took over on downs.

On the very next play, Wyatt Branson gathered in a pass from Cole in the right flat and raced 62 yards for a score with 9:02 remaining in the game. The Thunderbirds fumbled the snap on the two-point conversion attempt, leaving them with a 20-6 advantage.

North Callaway then secured the win after Wyatt Branson — from his safety spot — intercepted a deflected pass from Tipton senior quarterback Dylan Cooper near the Thunderbirds’ sideline at the Cardinals’ 27. Wyatt was rewarded on the following play when he pulled in his third touchdown catch from Cole Branson, this time down Tipton’s sideline with 3:39 to play.

Nichols then added the extra point to put a punctuation on North Callaway’s gratifying rally.

Despite the rough first half, Cole Branson finished 7-of-15 passing for 208 yards and no interceptions. He also led the Thunderbirds in rushing with a game-high 91 yards on 12 carries, while Wyatt Branson had four catches for a game-high 176 yards.

Cole Branson was also responsible for a key defensive play from his cornerback position when he intercepted a fourth-down pass in the end zone on the Cardinals’ first possession in the first quarter.

North Callaway — energized in the second half — put up 344 yards of total offense and committed just one turnover.

“(Tipton) was loading the box on us in the first half and that’s why we were having trouble getting our yardage,” O’Neal said. “They were showing some different (defensive) fronts, so we had trouble executing some things. We talked about it at halftime and we got things shored up.

“With some of the explosive guys we’ve got on the outside — with Wyatt especially — and Cole, if you give him time we can make some plays, so we challenged our offensive line at halftime. They stepped up to the challenge and we made a couple of big plays.”

The Cardinals totalled 230 yards of total offense, but were muted in the second half by the Thunderbirds’ defense. Cooper — who accounted for Tipton’s lone score on a 5-yard touchdown run at the outset of the second quarter — completed only 7-of-19 passes for 124 yards and was picked off twice.

“Our defense really kept us in that game,” O’Neal said. “We put them in some tough situations early on by not executing offensively and they rose to the challenge. … Even in the second half, they stepped it up even more.

“I liked the aggressiveness. … Our defensive line — in the first half — really didn’t play well and they played a lot better in the second half, working flat down the line of scrimmage. These kids are real coachable and they get to the spots they need to get to; now we just need to get there with some emotion. I think we did it in the second half.”

Friday night’s triumph was particularly sweet for O’Neal, a 1994 North Callaway graduate who played for the Thunderbirds under longtime head coach Mike Emmons and then was an assistant before replacing him last January. After O’Neal’s postgame talk, North Callaway players acknowledged his first career win and then swallowed him up in their joyous mob.

“It means a lot being from North Callaway …,” O’Neal said. “Hopefully it’s the first win of many. I do this for the kids, and they’re the reason why we get the wins. That’s the biggest thing.

“They went out and executed. They earned that win, not me.”

The Thunderbirds will finally get to play their home opener — which will also serve as their first Eastern Missouri Conference game — when Bowling Green (1-1) visits this week. The Bobcats lost at home to Palmyra 22-14 on Friday night.

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