Mountain Grove’s 14-point halftime advantage didn’t please the team’s coaching staff. At least, that’s the impression Houston coach Billy O’Neil got from the yelling coming from the locker room.

“I think we scared them a little bit,” O’Neil said. “I think they thought they’d come in here and have 50 on us before halftime.”

The Panthers –– ranked fourth in Class 4 –– pulled away in the second half for a 56-22 victory. But O’Neil believes his players were up for the challenge against one of the state’s best teams.

“We definitely weren’t intimidated,” O’Neil said. “We had a good game plan, and the players executed to the best of their ability.”

HHS fullback Trevor Merckling had a career-best 180 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Nathaniel Alkire and Austin Foster both had rushing touchdowns.

Austin Keeney led the Tigers’ defense with 16 tackles. Dalton Hale had 10 tackles, an interception and forced fumble.

HHS (1-7, 1-5 South Central Association) stayed close by capitalizing on Mountain Grove mistakes. The Tigers converted a muffed punt return into a 6-yard Alkire score and another fumble led to Merckling’s touchdown.

“I’m proud of the boys for standing up to the challenge and not backing down from a quality team,” O’Neil said.

The Panthers struck first when quarterback Bobby Otwell hit Jamison Cain for a 9-yard touchdown at the 6:01 mark of the first quarter.

The advantage was 12-0 when Otwell, who rushed 14 times for 171 yards, scampered 43 yards for a score on Mountain Grove’s next possession.

The Tigers were forced to their second three-and-out and punted, but the ball was fumbled and recovered by Keeney. Three plays later, Alkire scored from six yards out. He also ran in the two-point conversion to make it 12-8.

Cole Jones took the ensuing kickoff 78 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first quarter. But another turnover allowed the Tigers to stay close.

One play after a partially-blocked punt, Hale forced a fumble that Tanner Smith recovered. Merckling ran the ball four consecutive times as he covered 75 yards –– the last a five-yard touchdown run.

Merckling had runs of 6, 63, 1 and 5 yards on the drive that concluded with his team-leading 10th rushing score.

“If it’s one kid trying to bring him down, Trevor usually takes them five yards before they trip him up or he just can’t carry them anymore,” said O’Neil, who called Merckling the strongest pound-for-pound player in the conference. “Most defensive players probably don’t want to take him one-on-one because he is pretty powerful.”

The Panthers (7-1, 5-1 SCA) responded to the score with a 13-play, 81-yard drive that concluded with Otwell’s rushing touchdown. Jones ran in the two-point conversion to make it 28-14.

Otwell was only 3-for-11 passing for 27 yards and an interception. But he averaged 12.2 yards on the ground.

“The play they had the most success with was bringing both their backs through the hole, then Otwell would follow,” O’Neil said.

The Panthers scored 28 unanswered points in the second half to take a commanding lead. Houston got its lone points in the half when senior Austin Foster scored on a 10-yard rush with five seconds remaining in the game.

Despite Mountain Grove’s second-half dominance, O’Neil said he was pleased with his team’s performance against the Panthers.

“The kids were excited to play Mountain Grove,” he said. “They wanted the challenge and jumped up to it.”

Box score

MTN. GROVE 56, HOUSTON 22

Mtn. Grove 20 8 14 14 –– 56

Houston 8 6 0 8 –– 22

First Quarter

MG –– Cain 9 pass from Otwell (run failed), 6:01.

MG –– Otwell 43 run (run failed), 3:36.

HOU –– Alkire 6 run (Alkire run), 0:03.

MG –– Jones 78 run (Otwell run), 0:00.

Second Quarter

HOU –– Merckling 5 run (pass failed), 9:25.

MG –– Otwell 9 run (Jones run), 3:35.

Third Quarter

MG –– RHealy 5 run (run failed), 9:59.

MG –– RHealy 1 run (RHealy run), 0:48.

Fourth Quarter

MG –– JHealy 86 run (Otwell kick), 10:21.

MG –– JHealy 23 run (Otwell kick), 4:55.

HOU –– Foster 10 run (Merckling run), 0:05.

––––––

MG HOU

First downs 15 7

Total yards 489 182

Rushes-yards 41-463 42-182

Passing 27 0

Punt returns 1-5 0-0

Kickoff returns 65 41

Comp-att-int 3-11-1 0-7-0

Sacked-yards lost 1-2 4-39

Punts 1-31.0 8-25.5

Fumbles-lost 2-2 0-0

Penalties-yards 4-25 3-20

––––––

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING –– Mountain Grove, Otwell 14-171, RHealy 12-115, JHealy 4-109, Bolin 10-38, Jones 1-29. Houston, Merckling 21-180, Alkire 7-19, Foster 3-14, Hale 4-7, Smith 3-1, Poynter 4-(minus 39).

PASSING –– Mountain Grove, Otwell 3-11-1 27. Houston, Poynter 0-7-0 0.

RECEIVING –– Mountain Grove, Dixon 1-17, Cain 1-9, Allen 1-1.

Week 8 scores

Mtn. Grove 56, Houston 22

Liberty 52, Salem 0

Willow Springs 14, Thayer 13

Ava 48, Cabool 6

Week 9 games

Houston at Liberty

Thayer at Mountain Grove

Salem at Cabool

Ava at Willow Springs

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