CENTERBURG – Coming into Friday night, there were still question marks surrounding an East Knox team that had won its first five games by an average of 48 points per contest.
After all, the Bulldogs’ first five opponents had won just two games combined heading into Week 6. Yes, East Knox was scoring 55 points per game, but it had also faced three winless opponents.
As Week 6 approached, one question loomed large: What will happen when the Bulldogs face a quality opponent?
East Knox answered that question in emphatic fashion at Centerburg on Friday night.
The Bulldogs (6-0, 3-0 KMAC) exerted four quarters’ worth of dominance in a 42-7 win over the Trojans (3-3, 1-2 KMAC) on their Homecoming Night. East Knox sent a message to the rest of the Knox Morrow Athletic Conference and kept its place atop the standings, as Highland (5-1, 3-0) and Northmor (6-0, 3-0) both won on Friday as well.
It started on defense, where the Bulldogs surrendered just 44 total yards and one first down in the first half. That carried over to the offense, which featured a balanced mix of the run and pass. Junior quarterback Kadden Lester threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, while senior running back Kasson Krownapple contributed 66 rushing yards and one score.
“We were able to execute. We ran the ball better than we have been, and that was a focus for us this week, we have to run the football if we want to be successful,” East Knox head coach Cody Reese said after the game.
“With that being said, when you can do that it opens other things up. So we were able to be more balanced with our attack, and the execution up front with the offensive line is what led to that.”
On the Bulldogs’ first offensive possession, a series of downfield completions set Krownapple up for a three-yard touchdown scamper, as he took a direct snap and bulldozed his way into the end zone.
After the next Bulldog drive stalled at the Centerburg six-yard line, East Knox reached the end zone again early in the second quarter. Lester capped off a 33-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown lob to senior wideout Dawson Moreland in the back of the end zone.
The turning point in Friday’s game came late in the first half, when the game was still within reach for Centerburg at 14-0. Despite six first half punts and seemingly little resistance to East Knox’s offensive attack, the Trojans still had a chance to narrow the gap heading into the locker room.
With two minutes left and the ball at their own 20-yard line, the Trojans recorded their only first down of the first half but stalled after that. They punted the ball to East Knox with 1:06 left in the half, and the Bulldogs’ big-play offense then proceeded to turn the game on its head.
Wide receiver Caleb Gallwitz received a halfback pass from Lester on third down, and he slung a deep ball to Moreland down the East Knox sideline for a 32-yard gain. Then, on the next play, Lester found Gallwitz with a pinpoint spiral as he streaked down the opposing sideline, gliding into the end zone from 30 yards out with 11 seconds remaining in the half.
All of the sudden, in a matter of seconds, the score was 21-0. What had seemed like a manageable halftime deficit had instantly become less so, and the Bulldogs continued their momentum to start the second half, when Lester found Gallwitz again – this time for a 79-yard touchdown strike – on their first offensive possession.
“Out of our three losses, that’s happened every single game, the opponent has gone down and scored right at the end of the half," Centerburg head coach Andy Colella said. “Then they come out and they tack on another touchdown and you’re talking about a 14-point swing.”
Centerburg didn’t get on the scoreboard until the 7:16 mark in the fourth quarter, when freshman backup quarterback Jack Gregory found fellow freshman wideout Alex Johnson across the middle for a 33-yard touchdown completion.
Starting quarterback John Sheasby struggled for the second straight week, as he passed for 27 yards and ran for 17. Last week, Highland held Sheasby to just eight net yards.
With Trojan playmakers Donnell Marshall and Michael Kuhn out again this week, East Knox keyed in on Sheasby defensively and made things frustrating for him all night long.
“Coming in, they have some great athletes. We were very worried on the defensive side of the ball, what they were going to try to do to us,” Reese said. “So we were really focused on that this week, just staying as disciplined as we possibly could.
“We’re very excited with the effort. The defense fueled our offense tonight.”
Krownapple scored the last two East Knox touchdowns – one on a 36-yard carry up the middle and one on a 33-yard sprint to begin the fourth quarter, during which he shed multiple tackles before strolling into the end zone standing up.
Krownapple finished with 166 rushing yards and three scores. Lester tallied 352 yards and three touchdowns, while Gallwitz had seven receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Centerburg finished with just 126 yards of total offense, most of which came late in the second half, when the game was already out of reach. In the fourth quarter alone, Gregory threw for 66 of the team’s 93 passing yards. Aside from Sheasby, the team’s leading rusher was senior Stephen Schmitt, who ran for 13 yards.
When asked what he thought of his team’s overall performance on Friday night, Colella summed it up succinctly.
“Not very good,” Colella said. “Man, we struggled defending their big-play offense. We couldn’t move the ball on offense. And when you can’t do those two things, it’s going to be a long night.”
Part of Centerburg’s gameplan coming into Friday night was to get pressure on Lester, in an effort to suppress his playmaking abilities. The East Knox offensive line stepped up to the challenge, however, and it seemed as if the gunslinger had all day to pick apart the Trojan secondary.
“It affects it big time, when he can sit back there and just pick and choose who he wants to throw the ball (to) and you’re not getting any pressure on him,” Colella said. “You know, what he did tonight is what he’s going to do, and he’s done that all season. It wasn’t anything new.”
After starting the season 3-1, Centerburg has lost two straight KMAC games by 30 points or more. The Trojans will aim to get back on track next week at Mount Gilead (0-6, 0-3 KMAC).
East Knox, meanwhile, looked in-sync all night long. Whenever Krownapple wasn’t punishing the Centerburg defense with his physical running style, Lester was finding receivers in-stride. Reese, in his second year as head coach, believes that the team’s chemistry on and off the field is paying dividends so far this season.
“This is the second year of our offense all being together, so our boys are more on the same page. And they’re very close friends, so that helps out with that relationship and everything,” Reese said. “But we’ve worked a lot on executing and timing, so with that and being in our second year, that’s really helped us out.”
If Friday was a test for the previously untested Bulldogs, it’s safe to say they passed with flying colors. There are still tougher tests ahead, however, as East Knox will face Northmor (6-0) next week and Highland (5-1) in three weeks.
Next week’s matchup with the undefeated Golden Knights will present a whole new set of challenges for East Knox. It’s a game that will play a major role in deciding this year’s KMAC champion, and Reese said his team and staff will treat it as such.
“That’s going to be a very tough game for us. We’re going to have to prepare more than we have all year,” Reese said. “That’s not going to be an easy game at all. They’re well-coached, have some great athletes. So they’re definitely going to present some issues for us, so we’ve gotta see what we can try to do to slow them down, because they’ve been having a great season.”
For now, though, the Bulldogs can exhale. They proved something on Friday night – both to their skeptics and to themselves.
Standing in the team’s stretching circle after the game, Gallwitz grinned when asked about the rush of beating a competitive conference foe on the road.
“We were excited,” said Gallwitz, his white jersey caked in the autumn mud. “We love to play tough games like this.”