After a pass-happy attack in Week 2 against Service and a ground-heavy approach in Week 3 against Thunder Mountain, the Kenai Central coaching staff was looking for a more balanced approach in Week 4’s matchup with Northern Lights Conference foe Eagle River.
The run-pass combo came through at a pivotal point in the game as the Kardinals claimed a 25-7 victory Friday at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. Kenai is 1-0 in the NLC and 2-2 overall, while Eagle River is 0-1 and 1-3.
After Kenai grabbed an 18-0 lead at halftime, the Kardinals turned the ball over on consecutive possessions in the third quarter. The second turnover, a fumble by Kards quarterback Chase Gillies recovered by Jordan Porter, set the Wolves up on the Kenai 43-yard line.
Just three plays later, Eagle River quarterback Thad Heagy was rolling right and nailing Cameron Smith for an 18-7 game with 2:40 left in the third.
After breaking a 24-game losing streak in Week 3 by topping Barrow 22-20, the Wolves were in the game deep in the second half against last season’s medium-schools state runner-up.
“We fought hard and came away with that touchdown,” Eagle River coach Matt Turner said. “That’s one thing that has changed this year. There’s no quit in this team.”
But Kenai started the next drive on its 36, and Gillies found Rykker Riddall twice and Zack Tuttle once to move the ball to the Eagle River 16. After a run and a holding penalty, Nick Beeson ran it up the gut for a 24-yard touchdown and a 25-7 lead with 0:30 left in the quarter. Eagle River would not threaten after that.
“We’re really happy with the way we were able to come out and execute on that drive,” Kenai head coach Davis Lowery said.
The coach said drops, penalties and turnovers kept the Kenai offense from fully clicking into gear, but he said a big goal in the game was to move to a balanced attack, and the Kards did that.
Kenai passed 37 times against Service in Week 2 and then ran 49 times against Thunder Mountain in Week 3. Friday, Kenai rushed 36 times for 207 yards, led by the 140 yards and two touchdowns of Riddall. Gillies was 12 of 25 with a pick and a scoring strike to Beeson, rolling up 139 yards.
“Consistency is our goal,” Lowery said. “We’re improving every week in that aspect of the game, but today we had too many mistakes that slowed us down on offense.”
On the first play from scrimmage, Gillies fired a pass that Smith undercut and couldn’t handle, or he probably puts Eagle River up early with a pick-six. On the Wolves’ first play from scrimmage, Porter lost a fumble that was recovered by Tuttle.
Eagle River also hurt itself with a tripping penalty on a punt that gave a Kards’ scoring drive new life late in the first half. Turner said his squad may have relaxed a bit after finally nabbing a win after three years of trying.
“It was really hard to get them refocused,” Turner said. “A lot of these guys have been with me for three years, so to get that win was very exciting.”
Riddall took advantage of Eagle River’s slow start with scoring runs early in the first and second quarters. The junior cornerback was beaten on a few big pass plays, but Lowery loved the way he took responsibility for those plays and kept running hard.
“I’m proud of Rykker’s performance the last two weeks,” Lowery said. “He’s an unselfish player and pound for pound, he’s one of the toughest players around.”
In addition to catching a 15-yard strike from Gillies to put Kenai up 18-0 with 5:45 left in the first half, Beeson captained a solid defense from his inside linebacker position. Heagy was 7 of 17 for 108 yards and a pick, while the Wolves rushed for just 60 yards.
“Nick has been a great leader for us,” Lowery said. “When we need tough yards, we go to him.”
The Wolves moved the ball in stretches, but many of their nine penalties for 65 yards were terribly timed.
“We’re a ball-control offense,” Turner said. “Any setback like that changes our mind-set and our play-calling.”
Kardinals 25, Wolves 7
Eagle River 0 0 7 0 —7
Kenai 6 12 7 0 —25
Ken — Riddall 13 run (kick failed), 9:56.
Ken — Riddall 10 run (kick failed), 11:35.
Ken — Beeson 15 pass from Gillies (run failed), 5:45.
ER — Smith pass from Heagy (Heagy kick), 2:40.
Ken — Beeson 24 run (Tuttle kick), 0:30.
First downs 8 17
Rushes-yards 30-60 36-207
Passing yards 108 139
Comp-att-int 7-17-1 12-25-1
Return yards 6 10
Punts 6-34.8 3-18.0
Fumbles 3-1 2-1
Penalties 9-65 8-75
Rushing — Eagle River: Porter 10-57, Burningham 2-8, Heagy 14-(-5), Osborne 3-(-1), George 1-1. Kenai: Tuttle 6-11, Riddall 17-140, Gillies 8-18, Beeson 5-38.
Passing — Eagle River: Heagy 7-17-1—108; Kenai Central: Gillies 12-25-1—139.