The surest way to rile up the Moffat County High School gridiron gang is to give them a week of competition followed by an unexpected break. All wound up and nowhere to go, the Bulldogs were sure to run right over whoever was next on the schedule.
Such was the case Saturday afternoon five hours from home as MCHS took its first win of the season as well as its first victory in the new 2A West League.
The Elizabeth Cardinals were the unwitting recipients of an extra eight days’ worth of pent-up energy as the Dogs earned a 35-21 win a week after MoCo missed a game against Englewood.
The Pirates’ COVID quarantine issue may have been a frustration for the Dogs as they were expecting to open conference play Oct. 16 on home turf, but never let it be said the Craig crew can’t turn lemons into lemonade.
The opening kick went to MCHS, and a slow-moving drive sparked to life with a conversion on third down as quarterback Ryan Peck drilled it to Carson Miller at midfield. The Dogs zipped along from there to get into the red zone, and it was Ethan Hafey who picked up the six points on a 5-yard slant pass from Peck less than four minutes into the game.
Hafey noted his QB read the Elizabeth coverage perfectly.
“It was amazing on that first drive of the game going down, Peck called an audible and we had a great connection,” Hafey said.
The Cards had little luck once they got the ball back, and Peck showed he was only getting his throwing arm warmed up, sending it to Donnie Quick on a long reception that got them near the Cardinal 20.
It was a short wait for the Bulldog sideline to celebrate again, as a catch by Caleb Frink got them another touchdown for the 14-0 advantage following a second PAT by kicker Chris Cox.
Elizabeth’s offense did little from there, but their defense buckled down to push MoCo back as the first quarter came to a close, helped along by Bulldog penalties. A high-arcing punt with an unfriendly bounce gave the Cardinals their first big break as well as their first time in Bulldog territory, starting from the 41.
As the Cardinal push began, they were aided considerably by their own fumble that was recovered with a drastic amount of penalty yardage tacked on to get them all the way to the Dogs’ 9-yard line to close the first period.
It took seven seconds in the second quarter for Elizabeth to get over the goal line from there as the MoCo lead was narrowed to 14-7.
The Bulldogs had to boot it again shortly after their possession, yet the subsequent three-and-out stretch by Elizabeth was full of penalties against the Cards, forcing them to punt from their own end zone.
The pigskin found its way back from the 40 as Peck sent it to Miller and Frink, the latter of whom scored on an 18-yard reception with seven minutes left in the first half.
The MoCo offense found itself slightly jinxed for the remainder of the second quarter as a double pass attempt resulted in an interception by Jace Perez and on the next possession, Peck fumbled on a scramble attempt.
However, both turnovers amounted to zilch for Elizabeth as the Bulldog D stood strong to deny them another entry on the scoreboard, including a sack by Brian Gonzales just before halftime.
MCHS coaches noticed a lull as the Dogs were back on the field in the third quarter, with the Cardinals pushing them around with a newfound confidence and gobbling up yardage.
A reprimand during a timeout was heard and heeded by the Dogs, perhaps too much so, as what would have been another sack by Gonzales instead wound up being a facemask penalty.
Head coach Lance Scranton said there were an abundance of calls he didn’t totally agree with, though he didn’t feel his athletes were showing low-quality play or poor sportsmanship amid the many flags.
“They weren’t flagrant, they were just penalties you get when you’re working hard. Work-hard penalties, you can forgive,” he said.
Elizabeth slowly edged into the red zone and were within sight a score, but a fourth and goal situation for the Cards saw Elizabeth QB Jason Weber tuck it and run only for Bulldog defensive end Logan Hafey to wrap up perfectly to keep Weber from touching the pylon right in front of the MoCo sideline.
The raucous energy that came with the stop was replaced by a cautious hope that starting a drive from the 1-yard line wouldn’t go awry for the Dogs. An incomplete pass didn’t help, but the next play proved to be the highlight of the day.
Peck handed off to Frink as he had many times before, but Frink — who had 98 rushing yards against Meeker — found more room to run than usual, passing the 10, the 20, the 30…
Ultimately, the Bulldog senior got his third TD of the day on a 99-yard breakaway as teammates were losing their minds cheering and likening Frink to NFL powerhouse Derrick Henry.
However, Frink took little credit for himself, later stating that “phenomenal” blocking from the O-line made it all possible.
Peck agreed that linemen performed flawlessly on the play.
“Caleb must have had 30-foot holes to work with,” Peck said of the line’s ability to create space.
Heading into the final quarter up 28-7, MCHS players no doubt had momentum on their side, but a special teams hiccup came early in the fourth as a low snap to Cox on a punt attempt resulted in a deflected kick as a Cardinal opponent came flying at him.
Still, Elizabeth couldn’t capitalize on the prime field position when a fierce tackle by Chris Sanderson jarred the ball loose, with Cox diving on the newfound opportunity and gaining the recovery, proving that, much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, great things happen when multiple Chrises work in tandem.
“That’s what happens when we all do our job,” Sanderson said with a smile.
Cox added the wait leading up to the game helped, as well.
“Two weeks without a game, then we kick some butt,” he laughed.
MoCo coaches began working in more of their younger talent late in the game, and sophomore Evan Atkin did much of the work from the backfield, with multiple carries that saw him weaving through the Cardinal defense with ease.
Atkin got his first TD of the season on a rush up the middle from within the Cardinal 10, while Cox moved to five for five on PATs, the senior Bulldog having yet to fail to split the uprights this fall.
Juggling the lineup had some drawbacks, and whether it was an overeager anxiety by younger Bulldog athletes or an increased rigidity by the refs, the Cardinals were the beneficiaries as late penalty yardage gave Elizabeth more and more turf. Bulldog coaches cried foul on an unseen holding call against the Cards, which gave the TD to Elizabeth on a 30-yard bomb to Perez with less than 90 seconds remaining.
Down 35-14 at that point, the Cardinals knew a comeback win was a tall order, yet they threw caution to the wind and came up with the ball on an onside kick.
A hasty throw by Elizabeth went right into Quick’s hands in the end zone, but the interception was nullified thanks to a pass interference call elsewhere, while the Dogs were then shortly after penalized for roughing the passer.
With roughly 30 seconds still on the clock, the Cards scored again on a wobbly 3-yard lob to Ryan Connelly, and the onside kick tactic worked again as Elizabeth earned one final possession.
Scranton said he wasn’t too concerned with giving up a few more points than he’d like.
“You can beat a team by 14 or 40, whatever, that’s a wash. We wanted to get our young guys some experience, and that’s more important than really putting it to a team,” he said, adding that the big takeaway for the week was a need to tighten up on special teams.
Moffat County was in no mood to give up anything else at this point; a weary defense pounded away at the Cardinals until it was 4th and 30, Elizabeth’s final pass nearly picked off by both Atkin and Quick.
With four red zone stands, the Bulldog defense had far more time on the field, though Scranton said he was just as pleased with the offense.
“Ryan took a huge step today at quarterback, just being patient and letting the game come to him,” he said. “He was taking shots where he needed to and holding onto the ball or throwing it away when he needed to.”
Peck’s passing was up in every way from the previous game, with a higher completion rate — 12 for 21 — for 159 yards and three TD’s, now ranked third in the league in throwing yardage.
Quick had the best receiving numbers with 76 yards on three catches, the longest of which was 36. Miller’s two grabs amounted to 34, while Frink scored on each of his catches for 32 total yards. Peck sent it to Ethan Hafey and Atkin twice each, as well as a short shot to Blake Juergens.
Frink — currently the only 2A West player with five touchdowns — is third in the conference in rushing yardage, adding 168 against the Cardinals on 15 carries. Atkin’s eight gave him 44, while Peck gained 15 from four runs, and a reverse to Ethan Hafey amounted to nine yards on a single carry.
Ethan Hafey was the day’s most frequent tackler at 12 total, eight solo. Joe Campagna and Taran Teeter each gained eight hits, with Campagna also credited with a sack. Logan Hafey and Corey Scranton each had six, while Gonzales and Quick notched five apiece.
Now 1-1 overall, MCHS is ranked second in the West at 1-0 in league play. The unusual unfolding of the schedule this season puts 0-3 Elizabeth at fourth, given neither Englewood nor Middle Park have faced a league team.
While Middle Park has had two straight weeks with no games due to COVID complications, Englewood rolled straight out of quarantine to a Friday meeting with Resurrection Christian that the Pirates lost 32-0.
Still, the big news in the conference was the matchup between Delta and Woodland Park. Despite routing Elizabeth 34-0 a week earlier, 2-1 Woodland was on the receiving end of a beatdown against their Panther doppelgangers, as Delta claimed a 27-2 victory to improve to 3-0.
Woodland Park is scheduled next for MCHS, who host their Homecoming game Friday, Oct. 30.
The entire roster is eager to finally have a home game as well as the possibility of capturing another win.
“I think the big thing is we need to pick up the tempo and keep grinding,” Ethan Hafey said. “Woodland put a beating on these guys (Elizabeth), so now we’ve gotta turn it up.”