Few could blame Kenai Central football coach John Marquez for calling the play he did.
With his team facing 4th-and-goal from the 8-yard line with 29 seconds to play in a 24-20 loss to Wasilla on Friday night, the first-year coach dialed up a call for quarterback AJ Hull, who had rushed eight times for 44 yards on the drive to get the Kardinals as close as the Wasilla 3.
But coming out of a timeout, Hull was stacked up for a 10-yard loss on an option play to the right side as Wasilla (1-2) preserved a nonconference victory away from home.
Marquez shouldered the responsibility.
"It's that old cliché - I went to the well one too many times," Marquez said. "I take all the blame for that. It's on me."
It was no surprise Marquez went to Hull given everything that preceded the play.
The Kards (2-1) took over at their own 38 with 5:06 to go after the Warriors snagged the lead for good on a Ben Fielder 17-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Anderson with 5:09 to play.
Hull rushed for gains of 7, 7, 12 and 12 yards on four straight quarterback draws off the weak side to open the drive, putting Kenai Central at the Wasilla 24.
After two short gains, the senior quarterback hit Tory Fitzpatrick on an out route for 14 yards on 3rd-and-7 to put Kenai Central at the 7.
Three more Hulls carries got the Kards to the 3, setting up the decisive play. A false start penalty pushed the ball back to the 8, and Marquez called timeout.
Had the ball stayed at the 3, Marquez said he would have gone to the weak side once again. Instead he went right, and a gang of Wasilla defenders forced Hull to reverse field before he was toppled back at the 18.
The smarter call, Marquez said, would have been to go back to Fitzpatrick on the out pattern.
"It's a reality check for me. I didn't live up to what I've said all season - that we have other weapons," Marquez said. "I need to trust those kids."
Wasilla erased a 14-point deficit in the second half behind the running of Devon Teeling, who finished with 167 yards on 30 carries.
Teeling plunged in from 1 yard out on the final play of the third quarter to cap a 50-yard drive set up by an Anderson interception. A successful 2-point conversion cut the Kenai Central lead to 20-17.
After the Kards went three and out, the Warriors started the winning drive from their own 28, converting a pair of fourth downs along the way.
Fielder hit Nick Parks over the middle for 21 yards on 4th-and-3 from the 50. Teeling then picked up 4 on 4th-and-1 from the Kenai Central 21.
That paved the way for Fielder's toss to Anderson, who jumped above Hull and defensive back Joe Sandahl to reel in the touchdown on a play the Kards were flagged for pass interference.
"We just stayed calm," Teeling said of the comeback, crediting his offensive line. "We kept running the ball and wore them down."
The Warriors dominated possession over the final 24 minutes, running 30 plays from scrimmage. Kenai Central ran 20, but 11 of those came on the final drive.
And after settling for field goals on their first three trips inside the red zone, the Warriors twice punched the ball into the end zone. Kyler Perry was 3 for 3 on field goals, hitting from 23 yards out and twice from 30 yards.
"We were trying to pass the ball down there," Teeling said. "We just needed to run."
Kenai Central took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on touchdown runs of 9 and 50 yards from Levi Hansen and Hull, respectively.
It was 20-6 at halftime, but the Kardinals wouldn't score again.
Hull finished with 158 yards rushing on 19 carries, while Hansen added 90 on 14. Kenai Central gained 300 yards on the ground, but 249 came in the first half.
Wasilla, meanwhile, kept hammering Kenai Central's defense with Teeling, who carried it 13 times in the first half and 17 in the second.
"They wore us down up front," Marquez said. "They've got some big offensive linemen and they were able to control the ball in the second half."
It was the first win of the season for the Warriors, who lost 32-20 to Skyview in the season opener and 30-27 to West Valley last week.
The Kardinals travel to North Pole next weekend, their first game this season away from the central Kenai Peninsula.
Marquez called the loss a learning experience for the Kardinals, who entered the game ranked No. 2 in the state's poll for medium and small schools.
"We've got to learn how to close out close games," he said. "There are no excuses, though. Wasilla played a great game and beat us. We'll be ready to go next week."
Warriors 24, Kardinals 20
Wasilla 0 6 11 7 -24
Kenai 14 6 0 0 -20
Ken - Hansen 9 run (Wagoner kick), 8:34.
Ken - Hull 50 run (Wagoner kick), 3:21.
Was - Perry 23 FG, 11:18.
Was - Perry 30 FG, 3:26.
Ken - Hull 1 run (kick blocked), 0:31.
Was - Perry 30 FG, 7:09.
Was - Teeling 1 run (Adair pass from Fielder), 0:00.
Was - Anderson 17 pass from Fielder (Perry kick), 5:09.
First downs 15 13
Rushes-yards 39-167 45-300
Passing yards 131 31
Passing 8-18-1 2-8-1
Punts-avg 2-31.5 2-27.5
Fumbles-lost 1-0 4-0
Penalties-yards 5-50 7-55
Rushing - Was: Teeling 30-167, Fields 9-0. Ken: Hansen 14-90, Hull 19-158, G. Mendenhall 6-38, Sandahl 6-14.
Passing - Was: Fielder 7-17-1-105, Teeling 1-1-0-26. Ken: Hull 2-8-1-31.
Receiving - Was: Adair 3-28, not listed 1-26, not listed 1-21, Parks 2-39, Anderson 1-17. Ken: Fitzpatrick 2-31.