WILLARD — Landon Carson has all the looks of a promising, dominant defensive lineman as a 6-foot-1, 275-pound hulk of a sophomore who has landed a starting job already in his Nixa career.
In spite of what happened Friday, he does not have the appearance of a future star receiver or cornerback and was reminded of that.
“That was my first interception,” Carson said proudly outside the Nixa locker room, recalling his pick that triggered the Eagles’ 42-6 rout of Willard.
“And it will probably be your last,” coach John Perry quipped as he walked by Carson.
“Yes sir, probably,” Carson said with a laugh.
Actually, who’s to doubt anything Nixa’s defense can do? The Eagles continued to add to their collection of turnovers, already nearing double digits, while making quick work of Willard. Turnovers forced by the defense led to Nixa’s first two touchdowns and a 14-0 lead less than four minutes into the contest.
Carson intercepted a Willard pass at the Tigers’ 10-yard line, setting up a one-yard touchdown run by Ramone Green. Carson’s pick came two weeks after fellow defensive lineman Dylan Nelson had a pick-six at Branson.
“It’s shocking defensive linemen in less than three games have gotten two picks,” Carson said. “That’s nuts. We’re stoked about it.”
Carson barely knew what to think when the pigskin was thrown his way. Two of his cohorts along the defensive line, Michael Grizzell and John Gholson, applied heavy pressure on Willard’s quarterback, forcing an ill-advised pass intended to simply avoid a sack. Instead, the ball found Carson.
“It came right at me and I was thinking, ‘Oh crap, that ball is coming straight to my hands, I might want to catch it,’” Carson said. “That’s where it went. I was surprised I even thought about catching the ball. That’s the first time I’ve had a big impact on the offense while playing defense.”
“He’s a big ‘ol kid who can jam it up in there,” Perry said. “I’m proud of him. Sometimes, when you’re doing things right, good things happy for you.”
Only a couple minutes later, Gholson pounced on a Willard fumble at the Tigers’ 40-yard line. That set up a 33-yard scoring strike from Austin McCracken to Josh Bray at the 8:21 mark of the opening quarter.
The blowout was well under way.
“I read my keys, saw the running back come in and saw the ball go on the ground,” said Gholson, who was coming off a 12-tackle night that included a sack against Joplin last week. “I dove for the ball and hit it out of the running back’s hands and recovered it.”
The action continued to stay on the same side of the field, as Nixa blocked a Willard punt. That set up an 18-yard touchdown pass to Smith Wheeler from McCracken at the 5:36 mark of the first period.
“We had short fields in the first half that made it easy for us,” Perry said. “It might have been tough for us to go the distance of the field. But the defense put us in good positions and special teams was good to us, too.”
“The defense got big plays to start the game,” Green said. “Going up 21-0 like that can put a team down quick.”
Of course, following their turnovers, Carson and Gholson proceeded to the Nixa sideline and the Eagles’ glorified trash can to take part in a defense dunk.
“The dunk was fun, getting to do that in front of all the fans,” Gholson said.
“My dunk was slow, but it got there,” Carson said. “It was a rush to have everyone in the stands cheering me.”
Carson is one of many breakthrough players suddenly shining under Perry’s tutelage.
“I was concerned whether I was going to be playing jayvee or varsity, after last year was a bad year for me,” Carson said. “I was caught up in some things I shouldn’t have been. I needed to grow up. I showed up to summer camp this year ready to go and things have taken off for me from there. For me, keeping my head in the game, I dedicate that to coach Perry.”
Before the end of the first half, Nixa’s offense received another assist from the special teams. Nate Nixon returned a kickoff 55 yards to set up a 19-yard touchdown pass from McCracken to Green on the final play of the half.
“I was trying to find as many holes as possible and they kept popping up for me,” Nixon said. “I made my way around all of them. I was so happy to get the team where we needed to be and get another score up.”
Nixon, who doubles as a big-play receiver, added he’s playing better than ever, thanks to Perry’s play-calling.
“Coach Perry has changed things up, getting the ball in everyone’s hands,” Nixon said. “The way we run the offense now is better suited for me. I’m loving this year.”
“Nate is a little dude, but they can’t hardly hem him up,” Perry said. “He can probably get loose in a phone booth.”
It should be duly noted Nixa is off to a 3-0 start with a starting backfield that includes sophomores in McCracken and Green. McCracken has thrown for nine touchdowns and Green has four touchdowns and two 100-yard rushing nights. Their scoring strike before halftime was the first pass they have hooked up on.
“Before the play, I told Austin to watch out for the safeties splitting and that if they do, I’m going to run up the middle and to look for me. That all happened and I was wide open,” Green said. “Me and Austin have a good connection. Us being back there gives each other confidence.”
McCracken later suffered an ankle injury that left him limping. Senior signal-caller Reid Potts sat out the contest after re-injuring a knee against Joplin.
“Reid is rehabbing and looking to return at some point in time. We don’t know when,” Perry said. “Austin tweaked his ankle. He probably could have went back into the game, but there was no reason to.”
Excitement continues to build for the Eagles. The players were thrilled to see their fans traveled well Friday. The visitor’s section was filled and overflowed along the Nixa sideline.
“Everyone came to Willard to watch us,” Gholson said. “Just imagine what it’s going to be like next week when we’re back in Nixa against Republic.”
Nixa 42, Willard 6
Nixa 21 14 7 0 - 42
Willard 0 6 0 0 - 6
N - Green 1 run (James kick)
N - Bray 33 pass from McCracken (James kick)
N - Wheeler 18 pass from McCracken (James kick)
N - Green 3 run (James kick)
W - Hancock 2 run (kick no good)
N - Green 19 pass from McCracken (James kick)
N - Childs 3 run (James kick)