KINGDOM CITY — More than anything, the North Callaway Thunderbirds' first loss of the season will serve as a jolting but necessary reset.
North Callaway will look to bounce back after last week's 40-34 conference loss at rival Montgomery County when the Thunderbirds host the Mark Twain Tigers tonight in an Eastern Missouri Conference contest. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
Despite stumbling, North Callaway (6-1, 4-1 EMO) still has important objectives — a second straight conference title and district seeding beyond that — to pursue.
"Unfortunately, we didn't play our best game and Montgomery played a very good game, but we can't allow that to define us as a team," Thunderbirds coach Kevin O'Neal said. "I think the message that my players have gotten — and I think it's sunk in — is that we learn from that and we move on."
To that end, O'Neal said doubling down on the team's commitment starts with himself and then funnels from there.
"We need to refocus, all of us — me included," he said. "I think practices have been all right, but we need to get back to focusing in and going hard, and hustling around in practice.
"Just little things that I think we got away from, that this forces us, more than anything, to focus back in, make sure we're doing our job — me, my assistant coaches and the players."
The Thunderbirds will confront a Mark Twain team that stopped a five-game losing streak last Friday with its first EMO win of the season, 41-26 at home against Clopton/Elsberry. The Tigers are 2-5 overall and 1-4 in the EMO.
Mark Twain's offense is mostly centered around a running attack that features a pair of junior backs — Jace Barton and Logan Perrigo. Barton topped the Tigers with 639 yards rushing (8.0 per carry) and six touchdowns through six games, while Perrigo had gained 570 yards (5.0 average) and scored four times.
"They don't have the speed that maybe some other backs have, but I think (head) coach (Karl) Asbury does a good job of preaching patience with those guys," O'Neal said. "They're going to pull a lot of linemen and they're going to do a lot of those things, and they allow those lead blockers to get out in front of them.
"Then they try to find a seam, and when they find it, they hit it pretty hard."
North Callaway's defense was gouged for 243 yards passing and six touchdowns by Montgomery County, but the Thunderbirds only surrendered 117 yards rushing. Earlier this season in a 39-0 EMO home loss to South Callaway, Mark Twain's entire offensive output was just 92 yards on the ground.
"We have to attack the line of scrimmage," O'Neal said. "You can't stand-and-catch against an offensive line like that. We did those things against Montgomery and they took advantage of it, and moved us out of the way in a couple of spots.
"I need my guys to be a lot more physical off the ball, establishing a new line of scrimmage one yard on the other side and get the heel depth like we're supposed to."
O'Neal noted the Tigers — who are allowing 31 points per game — have been working out of a 4-3 alignment on defense in recent weeks. Junior linebacker Avery Epperson paced Mark Twain with 82 tackles (54 solo) through six games.
North Callaway will try to find the groove again with its running game after being limited to 156 yards last week. Senior running back Dakota Brush guided the Thunderbirds with a game-high 89 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries, while senior running back Jordan Delashmutt managed just 49 yards in 17 attempts.
"Running the ball Friday, it was just one block here or there," O'Neal said. "Watching the whole film, it was one or two people making a mistake that would break it down. When there's a lot of people in the box and they're loading it, when you get eight or nine up there, you miss one guy in an assignment and then it messes up the run game.
"If you can get them all blocked and we can find a seam, then it goes for 30 yards sometimes."
North Callaway dropped out of the Missouri Media Rankings this week after climbing a spot to No. 9 in Class 2 last week. The Thunderbirds did receive six points in this week's poll.