KIRKSVILLE — Missed opportunities abounded for the Fulton Hornets in their North Central Missouri Conference finale.
In what was the most tightly contested three quarters of the season, Fulton forced Kirksville into three turnovers, enticed punts and turned the Tigers over on fourth down in the shadow of their goal line. But the Hornets couldn't withstand a 20-point fourth quarter by Kirksville in falling 33-0 on Friday night.
"A lot of our concepts were really close," Fulton head coach Trey Barrow said. "A few inches here and there and we, maybe, put up three touchdowns in that first half."
"We're getting close."
The Hornets (0-8, 0-5 NCMC) forced a fumble by Tigers junior quarterback Jaden Ballinger on the second play of Kirksville's initial possession. Set up at the Tigers' 43-yard line, Fulton managed just 5 yards on the possession before giving the ball back on fourth down at the Kirksville 38.
The Tigers (5-2, 2-3 NCMC) took over to begin what would end up being a 20-play, 7-minute drive and included three fourth-down conversions.
"That (amount of fourth downs) would kill any team," Barrow said. " You just have to find a way to finish and get off the field."
After Ballinger failed to cross the goal line on third down inside the 1-yard line, Kirksville finally punched the ball in on a plunge by senior running back Logan Blickhan with 2:53 to go in the first quarter. Following a punt by the Hornets, the Tigers needed just two plays to lengthen out to a two-score lead.
After Ballinger hit senior wide receiver Aiden McKim on a 31-yard pass, senior running back Seth Thomas scored the first of his two touchdowns on a 31-yard run as time expired in the quarter.
Fulton grabbed possession and mirrored Kirksville's marathon possession with a 15-play, 8-minute march that started at its own 39. The drive was aided by some effective north-south running by Fulton sophomore running back Tyreion Logan, who carried the ball six times for 22 yards in what may have been his most productive drive of the season.
"I thought he did a nice job most of the night," Barrow said. "He sees the holes and he's starting to hit them, and I thought the line did a nice job on that drive."
The possession stalled at the Kirksville 12, however, as the Hornets had to adjust on the fly after a couple of injury-based substitutions on the offensive line forced them to work out of an empty backfield. The first of sophomore quarterback Courtland Simmons' three interceptions — this one picked off by Tiger senior Brock Burchett — concluded the series.
The throw was the type of 50/50 ball the Hornets are used to throwing to senior wide receiver Seth Sayler, Fulton's leading pass-catcher who was unavailable due to injury.
"He's got great hands and runs great routes, and replacing him is hard to do," Barrow said.
The two teams traded series-ending interceptions on each of the next two drives as the game stood at 13-0 after a half. After intermission, an interception by Hornets junior defensive back Brynn Bynum halted the first Kirksville drive, leading to a scoreless third quarter between the two teams.
"We were in that game, we just needed a few things to go our way," Barrow said. "It's there for us as long as we can execute."
After a Fulton turnover on downs to start the fourth quarter, Thomas' 16-yard touchdown run capped off a five-play, 57-yard drive to push the Tigers out to a 19-0 lead. Following a punt by the Hornets, Kirksville finished off its ensuing eight-play drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Ballinger to senior wide receiver Noah Copeland.
A play later, Burchett picked off Simmons and returned it for a 31-yard touchdown to close out the scoring.
"I thought our timing was a little bit off on a lot of our pass plays," Barrow said. "We ran some digs over the middle that we just missed or we threw it just a little bit late."
Fulton returns home next Friday night to close out the regular season against Sweet Springs/Malta Bend next week. The Greyhounds (4-1) edged Windsor (Imperial) 34-33 on Friday night.
"I liked how we played; I thought we played physically and hard the whole game," Barrow said. "Sweet Springs just beat a Class 4 team, so they're a good team, so we have our hands full this week, too."