In a battle for conference supremacy between unbeatens, Class 5A’s third-ranked Highland Bulldogs rode a perfect start to the game, scoring touchdowns on its first two drives and building a 28-0 lead over arch rival Triad halfway through third quarter.
Triad entered the game shorthanded and became even more banged up, but the Knights lived up to their name and battled to the end. Triad actually got the better of the play in the second half, but the hole was too deep to dig out of as Highland spoiled the Knights’ homecoming with a 28-13 victory Friday night.
Highland kept its hopes alive for an undefeated regular season and took charge of the Mississippi Valley Conference at 2-0 while Triad (4-1, 1-1 MVC), suffered its first setback.
“When we go up 28-0, and they’re not a quick-strike offense, because they like to pound the rock, that’s a big deal,” said junior wide receiver Sam LaPorta, who caught TD passes of 14 and 23 yards to help stake his team to a 14-0 lead. “We put ourselves in a good position, because now we’re in the driver’s seat for the conference.”
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The Bulldogs needed just 3 minutes, 39 seconds of game clock to travel 129 yards in 10 plays to race out to a two-score lead.
Both drives ended up with senior quarterback Garrett Marti hooking up with his favorite target, LaPorta, for touchdowns on similar-looking plays in the back of the end zone.
The first TD was a 14-yard connection to cap off a seven-play, 66-yard drive on the game’s opening possession that only used 2:27.
Th second strike was even quicker as it took only 1:12 and three plays to cover 63 yards, punctuated by a 23-yard score from Marti to LaPorta. Junior running back Brady Feldmann helped set it up with a 32-yard gallop.
“It’s always good scoring on the first two drives, and I am glad we got up 14-0 right off the zip,” said Marti said. “We knew this was going to be one of the best games, and it got hyped up a lot. It was a good game, and I am just glad we came out on top.”
Marti finished with three TD passes to give him 17 compared to just one interception in five games.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without all my linemen and all the wide receivers that come down with the ball. I can’t thank them enough,” Marti said. “They’re something special. I love them.”
LaPorta finished with seven receptions for 95 yards, and his pair of TD catches gives him nine for the year.
Feldmann also had a big game as he racked up a 82 yards and one touchdown on 13 rushes and 52 yards receiving and one TD one three receptions.
A 36-yard completion from Marti to junior Jack Etter set the table for Feldmann to lunge in in from the 2-yard line with 47.3 seconds left in the first half to put Highland on top 21-0.
To open the second half, the Bulldogs forced the Knights to punt. On its ensuing possession, Highland broke Triad’s back by converting on a fourth-down-and-8 with a 35-yard perfectly thrown bomb from Marti to Feldmann streaking down the middle of the field to blow the game wide open at 28-0 with 6:07 to play in the third quarter.
Triad lost star senior tailback Trevor Nott for the season last week due to a dislocated elbow and then lost senior fullback Elijah Kelly in the second quarter Friday night to a serious knee/leg injury. It was the third starter the Knights have lost to injury this season.
Highland also suffered an injury sophomore right tackle Wes Schmollinger. Freshman Sam Buck came in to replace him.
“It’s a rivalry game, so all bets out the window, and you have to want it more than they do. That’s what it all comes down to,” Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke said. “You have to be willing to sacrifice more than guy across from you. They have had their share of injuries, and we had a couple tonight, too. I thought (Triad) played great and (Triad) Coach (Paul) Bassler and his staff called a great game tonight. But I think, collectively, we just have to be better, staff-wise offensively and defensively…
“It’s still a long road ahead, but I think the silver lining in all of this is we won a big game against a big rival team and kept our conference championship alive, and we learned a lot from this game.”
The Knights battled to the end. Freshman running back Sam Yager epitomized that toughness as he stepped up and rushed for 111 yards and both of Triad’s touchdowns on 23 carries in his first-ever varsity action.
Yager scored on a 2-yard run with 2:27 left in the third quarter and then from 4 yards away with 10:38 to go in the game.
“He showed guts,” Bassler said of Yager. “I felt comfortable bringing him in.”
Triad senior quarterback Cody Qualls rushed 11 times for 84 yards.
Leading the tackling brigade for the Bulldogs were senior linebacker Kyle Lane and senior defensive end Isaiah Harmon. Lane racked up 12 solo tackles, four tackle assists and one fumble recovery, while Harmon rung up 10 solo tackles and one tackle assist.
In addition, senior defensive linemen Josh Burke (two assists) and Austin Hays each contributed six solo tackles, while Etter and junior defensive lineman Jason Haase each had five solo tackles and one tackle assist apiece.