GRAND ISLAND — With Grand Island deep in Kearney territory and facing a fourth-and-three late in the first quarter, the Bearcats made just the play they needed: defensive end Tyler Gillen got to the backfield and dropped running back Andrew Rojas for a six-yard loss.
Turnover, Kearney’s ball, and the rivalry was on.
But then it went south for the Bearcats.
The host Islanders reloaded and then steamrolled rival Kearney 26-0 on Friday, as the Bearcats (1-4) registered just two first downs through the first three quarters and struggled on the offensive side for the second consecutive game.
Grand Island (4-1) controlled time of possession, as quarterback Pierce Almond led his team’s offense with 132 passing yards and a touchdown on 11-for-20 passing, while adding 45 rushing yards. The Islanders’ running back duo of Andrew Rojas and Jake Mayer were equally effective, rushing for a combined 150 yards on 24 total carries.
It was a game dictated by Grand Island from the outset, despite the hiccup when it turned the ball over deep in KHS’s territory as the team looked for its first score.
Grand Island found its score on the next possession, as Mayer capped a seven-play, 53-yard drive with an easy nine-yard touchdown run to the left side of the end zone early in the second quarter. The Islanders’ Brendan Wentling tacked on two long field goals (47 yards and 52 yards) late in the quarter to give GISH a 12-0 halftime lead.
Meanwhile, the Bearcats’ offense was sputtering. The team’s best chance to score came midway through that second quarter when Rojas coughed up the ball, and Kearney recovered the fumble at the Grand Island 40-yard line. But that drive, like six of Kearney’s 11 drives of the night, ended quickly on a possession without a first down.
Tyler Gillen led Kearney offensively with 71 rushing yards on 12 carries.
Kearney coach Brandon Cool said the team’s offensive struggles played a trickle down effect on the game.
“It’s one of those things where we couldn’t help ourselves offensively, which really hurt our defense tonight,” Cool said. “That all starts with the head coach and that starts with me.”
It only worsened in the second half.
In the third quarter, Grand Island backup running back Braden Knuth, playing for a briefly-injured Rojas, scampered in the end zone from 18-yards out to give his team a 19-0 cushion. Almond sealed the win on the first play of the fourth quarter when he found receiver Seth Roberg wide open for a 27-yard touchdown strike down the right sideline.
The Islanders amassed 360 total yards, while limiting Kearney to 150.
“It goes back to catching footballs, getting the blitzes picked up, and it’s just the little things that we have to continue to get better at,” Cool said.
It was the first time the Bearcats have been shut out since their title run in 2006 and only the second time losing to the Islanders in that same span.
Almond was aware of his team’s prior shortcomings against the Bearcats.
“It feels great,” he said. “We always want to beat Kearney. We’re on the losing side of our rivalry with them, so to come out and win this game was big, and we’ll take this to the next game.”
Now, a 1-4 Kearney team faces an uphill battle in district play with four games remaining.
But Cool remained even-keeled following the loss.
“We’re all in this together,” the Kearney coach said. “We’re going to make adjustments as coaches, and our players will make adjustments, and we’ll just be fine here in the last few games.”
Grand Island (4-1) ............... 0 12 7 7 — 26
Kearney (1-4) ...................... 0 0 0 0 — 0
GI — Jake Mayer 9 run (pass failed), 10:37.
GI — Brendan Wentling 47 FG, 2:09.
GI — Wentling 52 FG, 0:38.
GI — Braden Knuth 18 run (Wentling kick), 8:30.
GI — Seth Roberg 14 pass from Pierce Almond (Wentling kick), 11:51.
RUSHING — Kearney, Tyler Gillen 12-71, Jacob White 8-27, Matt Koester 4-17, Ben Seals 3-3, Eli Keller 1-7, Tylar Dahlke 1-(-5), Peyton Pocock 2-(-15). Grand Island, Andrew Rojas 12-78, Jake Mayer 12-72, Pierce Almond 10-45, Braden Knuth 2-29, Hudson Snider 1-4.
PASSING — Kearney, Peyton Pocock 6-12-0-32, Jacob White 3-5-0-13, Matt Koester 0-1-0-0. Grand Island, Pierce Almond 11-20-0-132.
RECEIVING — Kearney, Jamieson Oertle 3-18, Brockton Sterling 2-10, David Erickson 1-5, Matt Koester 1-5, Eli Keller 1-4, Tylar Dahlke 1-3. Grand Island, Trevor Wojtalewicz 3-43, Seth Roberg 3-42, Andrew Rojas 3-22, Jake Mayer 1-13, Kevin Cahoy 1-12.