Behind a mauling offensive line and a rampaging Andrew Welborn, the Kenai Central football team ran away from Palmer in the fourth quarter for a 56-35 victory Saturday at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai.
The homecoming victory, which came surrounded by menacing skies that finally produced rain — and a rainbow — at the final whistle, clinched a medium-schools playoff spot for the Kardinals.
Kenai moves to 3-0 in the Northern Lights Conference and 4-1 overall, while Palmer (1-2 NLC, 3-2 overall) misses the playoffs in its first year after moving down to medium-schools play.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Kenai senior lineman Zach Koziczkowski said. “Our team can play with the best and beat the best.”
As would be expected when two of the state’s proud football programs battle for a playoff berth, the game was back-and-forth with four ties and two lead changes.
But Kenai coach John Marquez said the one constant was the play of linemen Royal Brown, Tobias Randall, Koziczkowski, David Beck, Jonathon Delgado and tight end Connor Johnson.
Then, of course, there was Andrew Welborn, who rushed for five touchdowns and 286 yards on 20 carries.
“The X factor was Welborn,” Marquez said. “He’s a step above a lot of people.”
The efficient passing of Palmer quarterback Clayton Southwick, who was 8 of 14 for 172 yards with a touchdown and an interception, was able to push Palmer into the fourth quarter with the game tied at 35.
But, ultimately, with Kenai gaining 458 rushing yards on 43 attempts and Palmer getting just 101 yards on 43 carries, Southwick had too much to overcome.
“They beat us up front on both sides of the ball,” Palmer coach Rod Christiansen said. “You’ve got to be able to stop their base plays, and we were not able to stop their base plays.”
The Kards failed to score on just three drives all day — all of those coming in the first half — and one of those was on a one-play kneeldown at the end of the first half.
“We knew coming into this year we could win this kind of game with the guys we have up front,” Marquez said.
The Kards quickly jumped to a 14-0 lead when Johnson recovered a Welborn fumble in the end zone at 9 minutes, 1 second, of the first, then Welborn took advantage of a short field due to a botched Palmer snap on a punt for another score at the 6:32 mark.
But Southwick got the Moose the lead at halftime with four clutch plays. His beautiful fade route to Chase Ferris on third-and-10 led to a Ferris touchdown run; his 26-yard strike to Nick Daniels on fourth-and-17 led to another Ferris score; his agile keeper on fourth-and-5 put him in the end zone; and his strength on a fourth-and-1 sneak set him up for a 27-yard scoring strike to Daniels for a 28-21 lead with 22 seconds left in the first half.
Zack Tuttle, who ran for 86 yards on nine carries, had the lone score of the second quarter for the Kards.
“We made some big plays, but you can’t live on big plays,” Christiansen said.
At halftime, Marquez said the coaches decided to insert a safety for an outside linebacker whenever the Moose went to the spread look that had worked so well in the first half.
“I was feeling like we just needed our secondary to step up and they did,” Koziczkowski said. “They made the adjustment and it worked.”
The Kards tied the game at 28 with 7:54 left in the third when Welborn broke three tackles at the line and another right before the end zone on a 49-yard run.
Austin Farris answered with a 36-yard touchdown run for Palmer with 6:12 left in the third, but that would be the end of the scoring for the Moose.
Gillies closed the third quarter with an 11-yard scoring run for a 35-all game, then the Kardinals dominated the fourth quarter.
Kenai opened the quarter with a 13-play, 88-yard drive capped by a Welborn 1-yard run.
On the next drive, Southwick threw a bit high on third-and-14 and Chase Gillies came up with the interception.
The very next play, confusion reigned for the Kardinals because Marquez was sitting a player for disciplinary reasons. That meant the Kards had just 10 on the field, but that didn’t stop Welborn from breaking off a 56-yard touchdown for a 49-35 lead with 5:08 to play.
Yes, Kenai’s offensive line was that dominant at that point in the game.
“We’d rather run it with 11, but we knew our offensive line could still get it blocked,” Marquez said.
Welborn tacked on a third touchdown run in the fourth quarter to complete the scoring.
Christiansen said missing the playoffs hurts, but said his team still has plenty to play for, with homecoming next week and the Potato Bowl the week after that.
Kardinals 56, Moose 35
Palmer 7 21 7 0 —35
Kenai 14 7 14 21 —56
Ken — Johnson fumble recover in end zone (kick failed), 9:01.
Ken — Welborn 12 run (Welborn run), 6:32.
Pal — C. Ferris 1 run (Burton kick), 3:36.
Pal — C. Ferris 13 run (Burton kick), 9:48.
Ken — Tuttle 29 run (Vest kick), 7:18.
Pal — C. Southwick 5 run (Burton kick), 3:26.
Pal — N. Daniels 27 pass from C. Southwick (Burton kick), 0:22.
Ken — Welborn 49 run (Vest kick), 7:54.
Pal — A. Ferris 49 run (Burton kick), 6:12.
Ken — Gillies 11 run (Vest kick), 4:57.
Ken — Welborn 1 run (kick failed), 6:42.
Ken — Welborn 56 run (Welborn run), 5:08.
Ken — Welborn 8 run (Vest kick), 2:06.
First downs 13 14
Rushes-yards 43-101 43-458
Passing yards 172 20
Comp-att-int 8-14-1 1-2-0
Return yards 0 0
Punts 1-24 1-44
Fumbles 0-0 1-1
Penalties 8-64 16-106
Rushing — Palmer: C. Ferris 21-55, No. 26 1-(-1), C. Southwick 12-7, Mcgann 1-(-19), Roth 1-6, N. Daniels 1-5, A. Farris 3-43, Mose 3-5. Kenai: Welborn 20-286, Tuttle 9-86, Gillies 5-42, Johnson 1-6, McMinn 7-34, Beeson 1-4.
Passing — Palmer: C. Southwick 8-14-1—172. Kenai: Gillies 1-2-0—20.
Receiving — Palmer: C. Ferris 1-39, N. Daniels 3-74, B. Southwick 3-45, Witz 1-14. Kenai: Tuttle 1-20.