HOWARD – One year ago, on a freezing, rain-swept night in Marengo, the East Knox Bulldogs watched as their season slipped away.
Highland dominated the end-all Week 9 matchup mentally, physically and emotionally. The clock ran the entire second half as Highland came one step closer to its second straight KMAC title, and East Knox saw its shot at a conference championship and a playoff berth vanish.
This year, things went differently.
East Knox (4-0, 1-0 KMAC) jumped ahead early and kept its foot on the gas in a 40-9 win over Highland (0-4, 0-1) on Friday night. The experienced Bulldogs dominated the line of scrimmage, giving running back Caleb Gallwitz space to rattle off another 200-plus-yard performance – his third already this season.
“It feels great,” senior lineman Luke Grosscup said of the win. “We knew what we had to do coming into this game and we executed it.”
East Knox set the tone early on Friday night. The Bulldogs scored on their second play from scrimmage – a one-yard touchdown plunge by Gallwitz – after beginning the possession on the Highland 25-yard-line. They scored again with 1:56 left in the first quarter, as quarterback Kadden Lester found wideout Weston Melick over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown completion.
But Highland would make things interesting heading into halftime. A field goal from Riley Kemmer narrowed the deficit to 13-3, and after East Knox scored on a 23-yard touchdown spiral from Lester to Braden Kannady, the Scots answered once more. Quarterback Kadin Johnson led the Scots 75 yards in less than two minutes, and tailback Jack Weaver capped off the drive by bulldozing into the end zone from four yards out to cut the East Knox lead to 20-9 at intermission.
The message at halftime was simple, East Knox head coach Cody Reese said.
“We told them, ‘Hey, we need to come out and we need to run the football,’” Reese said. “Highland’s a good team and that first drive is critical.”
The Bulldogs quelled all Highland momentum with a four-play, 54-yard drive to begin the second half that resulted in another Gallwitz touchdown. It took less than two minutes, and it took the wind out of Highland’s sails for good.
“Going out and punching one in, that’s a big [momentum swing]. Fortunately, we were able to do that and get a stop and be able to punch another one in, so that’s huge,” Reese said. “We talked to them at halftime about how critical that was and you know what, they rose to the challenge.”
East Knox proceeded to score on its next two possessions – Gallwitz ran it in from 35 yards out, then 37 – to put the game on ice. The defense did its job as well; Highland went scoreless in the second half, crossing into East Knox territory just once.
East Knox racked up 390 yards of total offense against Highland, including 234 on the ground. Gallwitz ran for 211 yards and four touchdowns, while Lester connected on 8 of 13 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
By establishing the run and winning the battle up front, East Knox set itself up for passing opportunities.
“It was huge. And we told them that, we said, ‘Hey, we need to establish the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball tonight, because if we don’t, we’re not going to be putting ourselves in a position to be successful,’” Reese said. “That was huge coming into tonight, that was the focus… I’m proud of the kids and how hard they worked.”
While Lester passed sparingly on Friday, he showed signs of brilliance from the pocket. The KMAC’s top quarterback appeared calm and comfortable as he hit his receivers in stride. One sequence in particular stood out; Lester connected with Kannady on a 29-yard bomb midway through the second quarter, then found him again for a 23-yard scoring pass on the next play.
Both balls were perfectly located, landing gently in Kannady’s arms as he dove. Lester, protected by a menacing offensive line, seemed to barely break a sweat.
“That kid can really sling it,” Highland head coach Matt Jones said. “We saw a really good kid in our first game against Bloom-Carroll in Otto Kuhns; that kid’s better than Otto Kuhns, at least throwing the ball. Really good. Impressive.”
Partnered with Gallwitz – who has now recorded 17 rushing touchdowns through four weeks – and an experienced receiving corps, Lester’s offense is altogether baffling for defenses. It certainly was for Highland’s on Friday night.
“You gotta pick your poison, you know?” Jones said. “I mean, that’s all it comes down to. That’s an extremely [good] team offensively.”
On the defensive side of the ball, East Knox’s physicality wreaked havoc on Highland’s run-heavy system. The Bulldogs held the Scots to just 160 rushing yards, including 92 from Weaver.
Friday’s game came down to physicality, and it also came down to experience. East Knox returned four all-conference players from a year ago, as well as most of its starters on both sides of the ball. Highland, meanwhile, lost seven all-conference players to graduation last year. Jones said his team’s inexperience showed against the Bulldogs.
“We’re all still learning how to play with each other, trying to keep everybody healthy,” Jones said. “It’s a huge difference, when you’ve been playing with a guy for 2-3 years and you can think the same, and then in our situation where you’re playing with them for the last eight weeks, from August until now.”
Friday felt like sweet revenge for an East Knox program that had yet to beat Highland as a member of the KMAC. The Scots had served as the perfect foil for East Knox over the last two seasons; the Bulldogs were 7-1 when they lost to Highland by three touchdowns in 2017, and had the same record heading into last season’s debacle.
“I mean, when you get outscored 78-14 the last two years, you definitely want to do something about it, if you have any type of competitiveness,” said Reese, who coached at Highland before coming to East Knox. “We wanted to come out and punch them in the mouth. And they did it to us sometimes, we were able to do it to them sometimes. But I’m proud of how our boys – how physical they were and how they were able to execute.”
WHAT’S NEXT: East Knox will face Fredericktown (1-3, 0-1 KMAC) at home next Friday. After beating Utica in Week 3, the Freddies stumbled against Cardington on Friday night, falling 13-7.
Reese preached the importance of having a short memory to his team after this week’s win. Although the Bulldogs may have cleared a mental hurdle by beating Highland on Friday, they’ll still need to perform well over the next six weeks to win the KMAC and qualify for the playoffs.
“We mustn’t be proud of what we’ve done, we’ve gotta focus on the future. We can enjoy it tonight, and then tomorrow, prepare for Fredericktown,” Reese said. “Nothing’s more important than what you’ve got right in front of you, and we need to go 1-0 next week. That’s the most important thing we’ve got going for us.”
Highland will return home to play Cardington (1-3, 1-0) next week. For a program that’s won 24 games over the last three years, Highland finds itself in a rather precarious position at 0-4. Jones seemed confident this year’s team will find its footing, although he said it will take time.
“This is a new concept for us. You know, we’ve been down in years past – we’ve started 0-3 before, come back. So I mean, we haven’t – at least as a coaching staff – these guys haven’t really seen it, but we have. We’ll get ‘em back to where we need to,” Jones said.
“I told them after the game, ‘We wanted to fight, we fought.’ We just need to be more consistent right now, and we’ll find a way. We’ll get there.”
- Northmor 27 Centerburg 21
- East Knox 40 Highland 9
- Mount Gilead 24 Danville 7
- Cardington 13 Fredericktown 7
1. Northmor (1-0, 4-0)
1. East Knox (1-0, 4-0)
1. Mount Gilead (1-0, 2-2)
1. Cardington (1-0, 1-3)
5. Centerburg (0-1, 2-2)
5. Fredericktown (0-1, 1-3)
5. Danville (0-1, 0-4)
5. Highland (0-1, 0-4)