Alton had no answer for Belleville East junior quarterback Kienen Waller at the Lancers’ newly christened Charlie Woodford Field on Friday.
But once the Redbirds figured out how to close off Waller’s passing lanes, the East offense stalled, and the Lancers stumbled to a 50-26 Southwestern Conference loss.
Waller shredded the Redbirds in the first half, going 21 of 30 for 279 yards and three touchdowns, and leading the Lancers to 19 unanswered points and a 26-21 halftime lead.
But the second half was another story for Waller and the East offense. Alton allowed him just eight completions on 21 attempts and returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter to blow open an otherwise tight game.
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“We knew coming in that their quarterback is very good. He puts the ball on the money, and you can’t simulate what he does with preparations during the week,” said Alton coach Eric Dickerson. “But we got a look at him and made the adjustments we needed to make in the second half.
“We haven’t had many turnovers on defense this year, but we got two at the right time for us.”
The loss spoiled high pregame spirits at East. Belleville Township High School District 201 voted in August to rechristen the turf field at East in honor of Charlie Woodford, 95, the founding president of the Lancers Booster Club and a two-time Purple Heart recipient during World War II.
The official dedication took place prior to Friday’s game, with Woodford shaking hands with each of the current East players, then accepting an autographed helmet and jersey from the team.
“I hope I’m worthy of this,” Woodford said through a microphone to the home grandstand.
East went on to drop its fifth game of the season, ending whatever remaining hope the Lancers had of a Class 8A playoff berth, even though the Lancers outgained the Redbirds 371 yards to 285.
“We get one side of the ball working working, and the other side makes mistakes,” said East third-year coach Kris Stephens. “We just can’t put a whole game together.”
After falling behind two touchdowns in the first quarter, Waller closed the gap with touchdown passes to DeCarlos Johnson and Natavion Thomas. The Lancers took the lead — and seemed to seize all the game’s momentum — when 260-pound lineman Nick Cole intercepted an Alton pass and rumbled untouched for six yards and a score just before halftime.
Alton regained the lead and the emotion when Darrell Smith returned the second-half opening kickoff 75 yards. The game spiraled beyond the Lancers’ reach with the two interception returns.
“Turnovers is the name of the game, and it’s what gave us the emotional swing headed into halftime,” Stephens said. “A defensive lineman makes a pick six, then we give up two the other way. You can’t do it.”
“It’s been a ride this year, starting off with Highland than Belleville West and Edwardsville. There’s no easy game on our schedule, so every win is big. It’s absolutely better at this point in the season to be 3-3 instead of 2-4.”
Waller finished the game with 339 yards passing and at least five completions to five different receivers. Thomas led the way with six catches for 96 yards.
Smith led the way for Alton with 155 yards rushing on 19 carries, plus the back-breaking kickoff return.
The Redbirds (3-3) will be in O’Fallon at 7 p.m. Friday. Belleville East (1-5) will travel to Edwardsville.