The complexion of the game changed in the second half Friday of North Callaway's 44-27 home victory against Wright City.
The Thunderbirds (4-2, 4-1 EMO) were able to bounce back from two straight losses by dominating at the line, with its 314 rushing yards and three sacks — all from senior Manny Moreno.
Head coach Travis Blevins said his team has started slow in previous weeks and this week was no exception, thanks to some miscommunication, but North Callaway in the second half was able to revert to what it did so well earlier in the season: dominating at the line of scrimmage. The Thunderbirds compiled 199 of its rushing yards in the second half while scoring four of its touchdowns.
North Callaway's option offense coming alive in the second half helped in this effort, Blevins said. Junior quarterback Braydn O'Neal, who finished with a team-leading 135 rushing yards on seven carries, breaking loose for big runs demonstrated this and made the Wildcat defense have to worry about defending someone else other than the tandem of Moreno and senior Trevor Ray.
"We got the option going for the first time this year, which helped a bunch," Blevins said. "It takes time. O'Neal had a great game tonight reading, and we had a tremendous second half blocking. In the first half, we didn't line up in the right formations, and the plays I sent in weren't the plays we ran. We were making those mental mistakes we've made before, but we'll continue to work at it."
The teams exchanged pick-sixes to tie the game at 6 as O'Neal threw one for 47 yards and then Wright City (1-5, 1-3 EMO) threw a 61-yard one to senior Payton Olsson, who has led the Thunderbirds' receiving corps.
The Wildcat athletes then had a chance to run and were on the receiving end of 22-yard and 33-yard catches. The Thunderbird defense pushed back some, but Wright City was able to score from 20 yards out on a drive that lasted 10 plays and ate precious clock, making it 14-6.
The Thunderbirds didn't trail for long on its three-play 64-yard drive that saw O'Neal run it 55 yards to the 5-yard line. Ray — who finished with 111 yards on 22 carries — punched it in on the next play to make it 14-13.
North Callaway hurt themselves again by fumbling a punt, giving Wright City a short field. A few short passes before the Wildcats weaved through tacklers and Wright City's Jeremiah Davis would eventually give Wright City a 21-14 halftime lead.
The second half became more explosive as North Callaway surpassed its first half point total in the third quarter. Passing lanes would still be closed for O'Neal, but the rushing lanes weren't as he extended more drives with his legs.
There were various times Wright City quarterback Joey Gendron was either on the run or was hit in the backfield, which can make a quarterback uncomfortable and less successful on throws downfield like the Wildcats were able to do in the first half, Blevins said.
"We got it done up front, especially in the second half," he said. "Their guys made plays over the top of us. It's real simple. As a quarterback, it's not fun when you get hit a lot. It causes you to get the ball out earlier and not as well as you did."
Wright City wouldn't change its strategy in the third and keep slinging it. The ball, though, was slung into the hands of junior Matthew Webber, who made like a receiver and darted in front of the ball, and returned it 12 yards. Ray capped the short drive with another 5-yard touchdown to make 22-21 North Callaway.
The Thunderbirds shook off a 72-yard touchdown run by Davis as O'Neal would run free for 32 yards and then take it to the red zone before pitching it to Moreno for more. Moreno then scored from 8 yards out to restore the Thunderbird lead at 30-27 after three quarters.
Blevins said the play up front on the defensive side for the Thunderbirds was key in this game as it particularly was during the fourth-and-1 stop that set up a North Callaway short field and Moreno's second touchdown from 23 yards out that gave the Thunderbirds a 38-27 lead.
"We just kept them in front of us," Blevins said. "(Wright City) gouged us on a touchdown run before on the same play, but we got penetration and hit them in the backfield. It was a big play."
It was calm on the perimeter but loud on the front as North Callaway continued to bludgeon the Wright City line as Ray scored from 18 yards after breaking a plethora of tackles for his third touchdown to make the game out of reach.
North Callaway will play its final road game of the regular season this week at Mark Twain (6-1, 4-1 EMO).