Special teams play made a key impact Friday night when the Mexico football team hosted Fulton in the annual Highway 54 Bowl meeting.
Senior kicker Gage Gilmore executed several squib kicks, with a couple of them resulting in Bulldog fumble recoveries, including one that led to a touchdown. Additionally, a bad snap by Fulton on a punt attempt awarded Mexico possession inside the 10 that led to another quick score.
The mishaps by the Hornets gave Mexico a 21-0 halftime cushion, and the Bulldogs carried on to defeat their North Central Missouri Conference rivals 42-6 on senior night for 11 upperclassmen in a game that also featured district seeding implications.
“Our kickoff special teams unit has become so much better than we were at the start of the season to where we're getting maybe two extra possessions from it. We've been getting decent field position from it and it's given us ample opportunities to put together scoring drives,” said Mexico coach Steve Haag.
“Gage can kick the ball deep, but the problem we have is that our kickoff coverage has not been very good, so a few weeks ago I made a decision we were going to squib kick it on the ground about every time now. Our kids like it because they have a chance to get the football and they all get excited about what that kind of kick can bring for the team.”
The triumph was the Bulldogs' seventh straight against the Hornets, and this evens Mexico's overall record at 4-4 and 2-2 in conference play.
Both the Bulldogs and Fulton (2-6, 1-4 NCMC) compete in Class 3 District 4, and the win gives Mexico some hope to garner a home date for the first round of the playoffs that begin in two weeks. Mexico rests in fifth place in the district standings, about 1 1/2 points behind Wright City and nearly three behind third-seed Moberly, which is Mexico's opponent next Friday in the regular-season finale.
Fulton returns to Mexico next Friday for an encounter against Missouri Military Academy.
Dante Billups visited the end zone three times as the Mexico junior running back rushed 19 times for 118 yards. The team racked up 274 total rushing yards.
Billups had rushing touchdowns of 1 yard in the second quarter, 3 yards in the third and 15 yards in the fourth stanza.
“We came out wanting to play more physical than Fulton and especially wanted to beat them again because this was our senior night and it's the Highway 54 Bowl game,” said Billups. “This has always been a big game for the two schools. You can throw out team records whenever this game comes up. It's a big bragging rights kind of thing and we're pretty happy to keep this Highway 54 sign at our place for another year.”
The Highway 54 Bowl series began in 1920. Fulton holds a 63-59 edge over Mexico in this ritual, and there have been six ties.
Quarterback Ty Prince carried the ball five times for 73 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The junior signal caller also threw for 72 yards, completing 3 of 6 passes, and one of Prince's passes was picked off by Fulton's Courtland Simmons.
Isaiah Reams rushed for 61 yards and a first-quarter score, while Michael White provided 22 rushing yards for the cause.
"We executed most of the areas of our game plan pretty well,” Haag said. “We brought a lot of physicality to the field and I thought we ended up wearing Fulton down in the second half.”
Fulton avoided the shutout with just over nine minutes left to play when Tyler Sayler hit Zaylin McNeil on a 12-yard dump pass up the middle that turned into a 49-yard touchdown reception. Sayler completed 3 of 8 passes for 90 yards.
McNeil rushed 17 times for 104 yards, and Simmons had 38 yards on 13 carries for the Hornets.