A game characterized by big plays on offense was decided by a big play on defense.
Palmer defeated Kenai Central 36-32 on Friday in nonconference football action at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. The Moose, of the big-schools Railbelt Conference, and the Kardinals, of the small-schools Northern Lights Conference, are now both 2-2 overall.
Kenai, looking for the go-ahead touchdown, faced a fourth-and-five on the Palmer 41 with 5:28 to play. Kards quarterback AJ Hull, who ran for four touchdowns and passed for another, found tight end Alex Nason behind the defense streaking for the end zone.
Through a light drizzle, Hull placed the ball on Nason's shoulder and Nason deftly pulled in the pigskin just yards from scoring his second touchdown of the game. Just after Nason had secured the ball and was taking the last strides into the end zone, Palmer cornerback Steven Lee poked the ball away. Palmer's Jim McCall smothered the ball in the end zone for a touchback.
"What are the odds the Palmer player is going to make a play like that and they recover it in the end zone?" Kenai head coach Jeff Baker said. "He made a great play. That wasn't the mistake that cost us the game."
Palmer would then grind out 12 straight running plays, converting a third and a fourth down, to expire the clock.
"Our cornerback got beat a little bit, but they teach us the ball is the issue," McCall said. "He was able to strip out the ball and when I saw it, I went for it."
On a wild offensive night featuring seven lead changes and one tie, Lee provided the deciding edge with his defense. The Kardinals entered the fourth quarter with a 32-29 lead, but Lee intercepted Hull with 9:41 to play in the fourth quarter and returned the ball 25 yards to the Kenai 15.
Just three plays later, McCall took a pass from quarterback Jackson Buresh and waltzed into the end zone for an 11-yard score with 8:25 to play. McCall finished with two touchdown catches, 142 yards receiving and 18 yards rushing.
"Palmer's game plan should always be to get the ball in his hands as much as possible," Baker said. "He'll do a lot of damage."
The same could be said of Hull. The junior had 193 yards rushing on 18 carries and also hit 3-of-7 passes for 67 yards. As if that's not enough for opposing coaches to worry about, Hull also returned punts and kickoffs for the first time Friday, setting up a second-quarter touchdown with a 57-yard kickoff return and a third-quarter touchdown with a 54-yard kickoff return.
"AJ Hull was running all over us," McCall said.
On offense, the Kardinals were able to get Hull into open space with various rollouts, bootlegs and quarterback sneaks. Hull said center Richie Ziehmer is invaluable in springing him on the sneaks.
Palmer coach Rod Christiansen said the Moose tried to dedicate a player to spy on Hull throughout the game, but that the Kenai coaching staff did a good job of using formations that made spying difficult. The coach also said when Kenai established the power running game, that made it harder to keep track of the quarterback.
"It's just blocking assignments," Hull said. "When everyone blocks, we can get 9 or 10 yards. If just one person isn't doing their job, the play doesn't work."
Led by the blinding speed of McCall, the Moose were able to fight offensive firepower with offensive firepower. Palmer had 387 yards of total offense, including 233 on the ground, while Kenai had 349 yards of total offense, including 282 on the ground.
In addition to a 43-yard reception and a 59-yard touchdown catch by McCall, the Moose also had a 25-yard TD romp by Ian Arhens and a 58-yard TD run by David Clement in their arsenal of explosive plays. Buresh, who was 7-of-15 for 154 yards, also had a 1-yard scoring run.
Palmer's clearest advantage in the game came on special teams. Palmer's Kris Merritt drilled all four extra points he attempted, while Douglas Chadwick converted Palmer's only two-point attempt of the night. The Kards failed on both their extra-point kicks, and were just 1-of-3 on two-point tries. Palmer's four-point advantage after touchdowns was the difference in the game.
McCall said Merritt is the unsung hero.
"He doesn't get a lot of credit, but he's a great blocking wide receiver and he kicks all the extra points," McCall said. "He was involved in some of this game's biggest plays."
Kenai has a similar player that flies under the radar while making key plays, but unfortunately for the Kardinals, senior Tyler Glidden did not play against the Moose because he was sick. As an outside linebacker, Baker said Glidden was a key part of the scheme to try and slow McCall. Glidden also snaps on extra points, and Kenai's timing was clearly off without him.
"I think the kids on both sides of the ball saw a lot and learned a lot," Baker said. "Nobody was injured, so that's key.
"This will help us to reach our goal of playing our best at the end of the year."
Moose 36, Kardinals 32
Palmer 0 21 8 7 --36
Kenai 6 14 12 0 --32
Ken -- Hull 20 run (kick failed), 1:25
Pal -- Arhens 25 run (Merritt kick), 10:25
Ken -- Hull 2 run (Nason pass from Hull), 7:47
Pal -- Buresh 1 run (Merritt kick), 5:22
Ken -- Nason 9 pass from Hull (kick failed), 2:12
Pal -- McCall 59 pass from Buresh (Merritt kick) 1:23
Ken -- Hull 36 run (run failed), 7:49
Pal -- Clement 58 run (Chadwick run), 7:14
Ken -- Hull 10 run (pass failed), 5:37
Pal -- McCall 11 pass from Buresh (Merritt kick), 8:25
First downs 12 10
Rushes-yards 47-233 39-282
Comp-Att-Int 7-15-0 3-7-1
Passing yards 154 67
Return yards 38 23
Punts 5-32.8 3-30.3
Fumbles 1-0 2-2
Penalties 4-30 8-50
Rushing -- Palmer: Chadwick 9-14, Arhens 12-69, Clement 8-88, Sorensen 3-16, McCall 5-18, Buresh 9-25, Paxton 1-3. Kenai: Risung 11-48, Hull 18-193, Sandahl 1-0, Carlson 9-41.
Passing -- Palmer: Buresh 7-15-0--154. Kenai: Hull 3-7-1--67.
Receiving -- Palmer: McCall 6-142, Merritt 1-12. Kenai: Nason 2-50, Carlson 1-17.
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