SALINA — For every McPherson High weakness Thursday night in its football season opener, opportunistic Salina South was there to expose it.
The Cougars magnified a majority of the Bullpups’ five turnovers, which turned a competitive game into a 61-32 South runaway at Salina Stadium.
The jittery Bullpups coughed up the ball on the second play of the game, which South’s Treven Slayton turned into a gift touchdown as it was the beginning of Christmas in September.
Still to come were four MHS interceptions, two of which were eventually turned into touchdowns.
The backbreaker came right before the end of the first half. Cole Calvert’s theft led to a Cougar touchdown as time ran out for a 34-25 lead, and then a pair of third-quarter pilfers were turned into 14 points and the rout was on.
“We didn’t execute very well on either side of the ball,” said MHS coach Tom Young, who personally chose the Cougars to open the season with because he wanted to see how his team matched up against a quality opponent. “I saw a lot of nerves. We made a lot of mistakes. And it’s really magnified by a team like this. They’re really good. You can do this against some of the poorer teams, but you do it against these guys and they’re going to score.”
Reports of the Cougars’ demise — they lost the majority of their starters including their stable of skill-position players — apparently are greatly exaggerated. Their offense was supremely balanced with 225 yards on the ground and 221 through the air, as first-year starting quarterback Dalton Wassenberg performed surgery on the MHS defense by completing 11 of 16 passes, four of them going for touchdowns. Dylan Becker had the MHS defense turning in circles by latching on to six balls for 173 yards and three scores. Eric McCullough rushed for 134 yards on 19 carries.
The Bullpups never led. They trailed 7-6, tied it at 13, trailed 20-13, pulled within 20-19, got down 27-19 and then crept within 27-25 — all in the first half.
But the last-minute pick — which came with MHS deep in its own territory — seemed to swing the momentum, as the Cougars wound up scoring on the last play of the half on a Wassenberg 6-yard pass to Jacob Marcotte.
“That really hurt,” Young said. “We gave them really good field position. Of course it was not (just) that one play, there were several throughout the game.”
South then scored 20 unanswered third-quarter points to nail down the decision. MHS’ only second-half score came on a 20-yard run by Ty Hart on his only carry of the night.
Nathan Nutter rumbled to 128 yards on 26 carries for the Bullpups and scored a touchdown. Kyler Kinnamon had a pair of Kinnamon-esque weaving TD runs in the first half and also connected with Jason Anderson on a 48-yard score for MHS’ opening points. Anderson, however, was ejected from the game in the first quarter, which took away a top receiver and MHS’ most experienced cornerback, which caused some reshuffling in the secondary.
Young said the game gives the Bullpups plenty to work on.
“That’s why we wanted to play a team like this,” he said. “We had more flaws than I thought we would going in. But we knew this was a really good team and we’re going to learn from it and get a lot better.”
MHS continues its backbreaking start to the season next Friday when potential Class 4A Division II state champion Andale invades McPherson College Stadium. It was the Indians who ended MHS’ season last year in the second round of the playoffs with a 36-7 victory. Andale hosts defending 4A champ Buhler Friday night in its opener.
• STATS •
MHS Listed First
First Downs — 18, 16. Rushes-Yards — 44-253; 33-225. Passing — 7-14-4-112; 11-16-0-221. Punts-Avg. — 2-28.0; 3-40.0. Fumbles-Lost — 1, 1. Penalties-Yards — 7-38; 12-93.
• LEADERS •
• Rushing •
MHS — Nutter 26-128, Kinnamon 13-94, Hart 1-20, Hoover 1-9, Saverino 2-2, Jirgens 1-0.
South — McCullough 19-134, Turner 6-68, Wassenberg 3-11, Becker 1-6, Stegmeier 4-6.
• Passing •
MHS — Kinnamon 7-14-4-112.
South — Wassenberg 11-16-0-221.
• Receiving •
MHS — Stephens 3-33, Anderson 2-55, Williams 2-24.
South — Becker 6-173, Marcotte 3-30, Kochevar 1-10, Weir 1-8.