CENTRALIA — One play seen through two sets of eyes drew the same reaction.
“Game-changer,” said Marion coach Kerry Martin.
“Game-changer,” said the man who made it, Venson Newsom.
The Marion junior snatched momentum and Centralia’s last chance with one correct deduction. Jumping a slant route over the middle, Newsom intercepted Carson Green’s pass and took it 50 yards to seal the Wildcats’ 42-24 South Seven Conference win at Evers Field.
It came one play after Orphans standout defensive end Will Pryor recovered an onside kick at his team’s 47, moments following Green’s 1-yard touchdown run and 2-point conversion scamper pulled Centralia within 10 points with 10:59 left.
Plenty of time for a rally. Plenty of time to end Marion’s unbeaten season and put the South Seven up for grabs going into the last week.
Or, plenty of time for Newsom to switch momentum to the visitors’ sideline for good.
“They were running that play all game and I was waiting for it,” Newsom said. “They were running a hit and I jumped it right.”
Newsom’s brainpower and athletic skills allowed him to cash a check most athletes would have bounced. It also assured the Wildcats (5-0) of the opportunity to aim for a perfect season next week when they host Carbondale, a team they beat 65-28 on March 19.
How Marion passed its second-toughest test of the spring — it rallied to beat Cahokia 23-22 on March 27 on Hunter Simmons’ touchdown pass with 2.1 seconds left — had more to do with its running game and defense instead of Simmons’ rifle arm.
It wasn’t that Simmons was bad when he passed in this one. He found 10 different receivers in going 16 of 27 for 157 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown pass to Walker Fox in the face of an all-out blitz in the first quarter. Simmons also collected 103 yards on only five rushes.
But after a hot start — 6 of 8, 87 yards — in the first quarter, Simmons and the Wildcats’ passing game couldn’t consistently take flight. Pryor seemed to wind up in the backfield on about every other pass in the second quarter. Simmons and his receivers just couldn’t get timed up.
There was no running game to take pressure off Simmons. Aside from his 55-yard touchdown run 35 seconds into the second quarter, Marion rushed for the grand total of eight yards in the first half.
“We needed rhythm,” Martin said of the offense. “That was on me. It was like I was calling plays instead of running an offense. We made some plays, but we had no rhythm.”
So Martin turned his spread offense into a running attack. The offensive line created holes and a plethora of backs combined for 202 yards on the ground in the second half. That included 98 on a drive that started at the 2 after the defense recovered a fumble.
When Tommy Wiseman finished the march with a 49-yard run on a misdirection play that bedeviled the Orphans after halftime, the Wildcats owned a 34-16 lead with 2:14 left in the third quarter.
“Super-crucial,” Newsom said of the ground game. “The line showed out.”
So did the Marion defense, even though star back Mason Blakemore rushed for 103 yards on 20 carries while Green threw for a surprising 293 yards. The Wildcats denied the Orphans (3-2) touchdowns twice inside their 5-yard line and also came up with four turnovers.
None of those were bigger than Newsom’s pick-six that quashed Centralia’s hopes of a miracle rally.
“We needed something like that,” Martin said. “We’d tinkered with expanding the lead all night, and then something would happen and Centralia would get back into the game. Give Centralia credit; they’ve got some talented kids and they played hard.
“Venson’s play was big.”