For the past couple of decades, the high-flying spread offense has been king of the gridiron. The old ways of three yards and a cloud of dust mixed in with powerful hits by players labeled “headhunters” became caveman-like. Low-scoring defensive battles became boring to fans. That mindset may be changed though after Mansfield traveled to West Fork on Friday, September 23rd. Was it a low-scoring game? Yes. Was it a defensive battle? You betcha. But one thing Friday’s game definitely won’t be called by fans in attendance though is boring.
Both teams entered the match-up undefeated in non-conference play with West Fork defeating the likes of Green Forest (4A), Berryville (4A), and Paris (3A) while Mansfield beat Magazine (2A), Paris (3A), and Waldron (4A). The two evenly matched teams flipped the coin and off to the races they went. The Tigers started off with the ball and began to chisel away at West Fork’s defense with runs by running backs, Tyler Woolbright and Fisher Willsey. Mansfield mixed in a few dump passes to Tyler Turnipseed and Daniel Burton to keep West Forks defense guessing what was coming next. This offensive trail mix of play calling kept West Fork on their heels for 16 plays until the Tigers finally capitalized with a Fisher Willsey four yard Tiger Touchdown. Mansfield would miss the extra point kick giving the Tigers an early 6-0 lead.
Mansfield’s defense took the field to face the West Fork offensive giants. The cards were stacked against the Tigers defense as they were outsized, were short two defensive starters, and were on an unfamiliar field. But that’s all part of the game, so the Tigers looked West Fork dead in the eye and flat out said “Just Bring It”. Mansfield chopped down each West Fork play on their opening series to force a punt in just six plays. Unfortunately for the Tigers, West Fork’s defense got some redemption on Mansfield’s next drive by intercepting a pass at their own 27-yard line. Just as before though, West Fork couldn’t move the ball on the Tigers defense. Big tackles by Drew Elmore and Sam Burton pushed West Fork into a passing situation. Greyson Baggett was lying in wait for that exact scenario as he jumped the pass and nearly picked the ball off. West Fork would punt again and were able to get a good kick-off pinning the Tigers back deep in enemy territory. West Fork gave Mansfield all they could handle, but the Tigers would still close out the first quarter with possession of the ball up by a score of 6-0.
The Tigers weren’t able to keep the ball for very long in their opening drive of the second quarter and had to punt on fourth down giving West Fork a short field to work with. West Fork quickly took advantage of the shift in momentum and tired the Tigers defense to drive 48 yards on 9 plays to score. After tacking on the extra point kick, West Fork took the lead from the Tigers 7-6. Mansfield roared back with powerful runs by Tyler Woolbright and Fisher Willsey to get down to their own 34-yard line. Even though the Tigers offense was short two starting linemen, the line was able to protect quarterback Cole Kindle long enough to find Peyton Martin for a tip-toe catch at the Tigers three-yard line. After a short talk between officials, the catch was called out of bounds which put Mansfield at a fourth down decision to make. But no decision was needed when Daniel Burton is on the field. Burton caught a pass from Cole Kindle and danced his way to a Mansfield Tiger first down. Emotions and mental mistakes put the Tigers a mile behind the chains again but didn’t deter them from earning those yards back. A couple of runs by Tyler Woolbright set up Fisher Willsey for a 3-yard end-around sprint into the end zone. The Tigers couldn’t add the two-point conversion, but the touchdown gave them the lead back with a 12-7 score.
Mansfield’s defense was back at it again, but this time it was the linebacker corps that stepped up. West Fork tried to run to the perimeters of the field only to be met head-on by sophomore Jeremy Strozier and freshman Andrew Burton. Since they couldn’t run to the outside, West Fork tried passing down the middle of the field. Big Mistake. Senior Drew Elmore read the quarterback like a kindergarten picture book and intercepted the pass to give the Tigers offense another shot at scoring before the half. Mansfield marched downfield with a balanced pass and run offense. Cole Kindle found Peyton Martin again but this time the catch was in bounds and in the end zone for a Tiger Touchdown. Unable to convert the two-point conversion, Mansfield closed the half ahead of West Fork 18-7.
West Fork received the opening kickoff of the second half and the Tigers defense went straight to work stuffing West Fork for a three and out. Both teams’ defenses played tag back and forth as neither offense could put up a score for the first four series of play in the second half. The Tigers finally punched through with a touchdown, but unfortunately, it was the Tigers in black that scored. West Fork added an extra point to leave Mansfield clinging to an 18-14 lead with a full quarter and a half left in the game. Luckily for Mansfield, the Tigers defense stood strong for that quarter and a half. Defensive ends Trey Vaughan and Samuel Burton created chaos in the backfield as both secured big quarterback sacks on West Forks passing occasions. Linemen Caleb Collier and Dakota Deer were put in as backups for the Tigers two missing starters but stepped up well beyond the position of backups as the duo clubbed their way through West Forks massive offensive line to stop the run game. The Tigers defensive onslaught shut down a West Fork final drive to prevent a comeback as Mansfield secured an 18-14 final score.
Mansfield’s victory wasn’t an easy one nor was it pretty. But an ugly win is still a win and the Tigers earned it. Head Coach, Tim Cothran, was proud of his team’s endeavor to persevere against all odds. “Our guys played hard and fought valiantly. They had to overcome a lot of adversity against a very good West Fork program and came out with a win. They never gave up. We’re very proud of them for this hard-earned victory”. The victory puts Mansfield in territory that hasn’t been seen in a few years. The Tigers now have a 4-0 overall record and are 1-0 in conference play. Possibly the most impressive stat though is Mansfield’s defensive achievements over the past four games. The Tigers defense leads the 3A-1 in points allowed by only giving up 20 total offensive points overall in their four games this season. Add that with a prolific offense that has hung up a total of 122 points in the same period of time and you have one heck of a ball team on your hands. The Tigers next challenge though is all that is on their minds right now as Mansfield will host Greenland for the Tiger’s homecoming on September 30th.