Francis Howell is one win away from getting back to the .500 mark after beating Fort Zumwalt South 14-11 on the road Saturday afternoon.
Under freshman quarterback Steve Kaiser, the Vikings (3-4) converted some key plays down the stretch to keep quarterback Josh McCoy and the Bulldogs at bay.
An important aspect of its win was Howell's ability to establish a running game and control of the clock with long drives.
Look no further than the first drive of the second half for the most evident example: After going into halftime leading 7-3, Howell put together a 14-play drive that covered 65 yards and lasted almost seven minutes. The drive was capped off with a 6-yard touchdown run from senior running back John Tierney, his 10th rushing attempt of the drive and second score of the afternoon.
"That's the signature of what we do," Howell coach Larry Branson said of his team's ability to control the ball. "We kept the ball out of their hands and it helped us win the game."
Zumwalt South (4-3) missed an opportunity to halt the drive after sacking Kaiser on consecutive plays, forcing a third down pass play. The drive was kept alive after the Bulldogs were tagged with a pass interference penalty, giving the Vikings new life. Tierney found the end zone six plays later.
"I was disappointed that they ran the ball on us so well," Zumwalt South coach Don Morris said. "They ate up some clock and got some first downs and it put us at a disadvantage."
The Bulldogs matched the Vikings by scoring a touchdown on their very next possession.
Senior running back Calvin Alexander punched it in from two yards out and McCoy passed for a two-point conversion over the middle to tight end Corey Pruett, trimming Howell's lead to 14-11.
The score was set up by a 50-yard pass play down the sideline to wide receiver Andre Thomas on third-and-15.
"Josh (McCoy) got a great rollout and threw a nice pass and Andre's catch was well executed," Morris said. "We felt like we might be able to make some big plays, and we did, but it wasn't enough."
McCoy gave his team a chance to tie in the fourth quarter by leading his team downfield with a series of quarterback rushes and another long pass play down the sideline.
After connecting on a 37-yarder in the second quarter, freshman place kicker Bulldog kicker Jake Winfield missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt wide left that would have tied the game with 4:46 left in fourth quarter.
Howell took over possession at its own 20-yard line with less than five minutes remaining in the game. The Vikings milked four minutes off the clock and Kaiser connected with wide receiver Hunter Bemis on a critical third-and-5, which gave them a fresh set of downs. It was just the second completion of the game for Kaiser, but it was a huge one.
With one minute remaining, senior Brandon Scharf executed a well placed 49-yard punt, pinning Zumwalt South at its own 7-yard line.
By this time, Zumwalt South was out of timeouts and the field proved to be too long and Howell's defense too strong.
Howell spoiled Zumwalt South's Homecoming and improved record in the Gateway Athletic Conference South to 3-1. The Vikings have critical matchups against Howell North and Howell Central in the next two weeks.
"Our kids believe in themselves now and I see them growing every week," Branson said. "We know we were 2-4 coming into this game but we felt we were better than most 2-4 teams."
"(The win) feels great especially since it's our first win in four games," said Tierney, who rushed for 127 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns. "The line was blocking really good today and our quarterback is getting better every week."
After beginning the season 4-1, Zumwalt South has dropped two straight games and there isn't much light at the end of the tunnel.
The Bulldogs are matched up with traditional state powers from Jefferson City and Columbia Hickman in the next two weeks and finish their season against Fort Zumwalt West, which leads the GAC South with a 6-1 record.