COTTAGE GROVE — Stillwater coach Beau LaBore anticipated a lighter workload for Zach Knox in the season opener, but the junior tailback’s busy night also proved productive while scoring four touchdowns in leading the Ponies to a 26-7 Suburban East Conference victory over Park on Thursday at Wolfpack Stadium.
Unfazed by the hot and humid conditions, Knox rushed 36 times for 171 yards and accounted for all but two of Stillwater’s points.
“Knox is a beast, but we actually had a plan in place to ensure that he didn’t go over 30 carries,” LaBore said.
That changed when fullback/tailback Nick Wanovich suffered an injury on his first carry of the game early in the second quarter.
“We had to ask more of (Knox) than we wanted, but he’s a tough, tough kid and he’s prepared as hard as anybody so in those critical situations we’ve got to give him the ball,” LaBore said.
Knox scored three touchdowns in the second quarter as the Ponies (1-0 SEC, 1-0) took control after enduring Park’s strong start.
On a night when Roseville upended one of the preseason SEC favorites Cretin-Derham Hall 15-12, the Wolfpack (0-1, 0-1) put Stillwater on alert early while moving the ball throughout the opening quarter and jumping in front 7-0 on a Brandyn Tulloch 10-yard scoring pass from Sam Domeier with 4:40 remaining.
Stillwater has not played the Wolfpack the past two seasons and Park didn’t make things easy for the defense with a quick tempo passing attack out of the gates. Park turned it over on downs at the Stillwater 18 to end the opening drive and on its first possession after taking the lead the Wolfpack marched down to the 5-yard line for a first-and-goal. An intentional grounding penalty and consecutive incompletions, however, led to a missed 26-yard field goal as the Ponies avoided a larger deficit.
The missed opportunity was costly for the Wolfpack, who were trying to win for just their second time since Oct. 9, 2009.
“We dealt with a little bit of adversity early,” LaBore said. “Our guys didn’t panic and we stuck to the way we play football. In the end, we knew that if we could just play our game for four quarters we could handle the initial surge they brought out.”
Park did an effective job of not providing too much scouting insight during last weekend’s scrimmage. Sam Domeier, who completed 26 of 40 passes for 268 yards in the game, hooked up with several receivers as part of that early barrage.
“We scouted them and they did not show any of the tempo,” LaBore said. “We have a plan in place the first two weeks to make sure we are prepared for everything we have seen in the past and even a few things that might just happen, so our guys were exposed to it. (Park) just did a nice job of bringing that initial tempo.”
The tide began to turn in Stillwater’s favor after quarterback Trevor Tillett hooked up with DJ Skie for a 40-yard gain that fed into five consecutive rushes by Knox, who scored from 2 yards out as the Ponies pulled within 7-6 (a poor snap led to a failed PAT) at 10:01 of the second quarter.
Stillwater’s defense forced a three-and-out and a poor punt left the Ponies in good field position on the ensuring drive, which led an 18-yard scoring scamper by Knox with 8:52 remaining in the second half. A two-point conversion pass fell incomplete to leave Stillwater with a 12-7 lead.
“The first quarter we just weren’t ready and they came out firing and we didn’t,” Knox said. “I thought we started out slow, but I knew that wasn’t our team and I know we would pull together and play well. We grinded, because that’s the kind of football team we are, a hard-working one.”
The Ponies added to their lead when Knox scored from 2 yards out with 5:42 remaining to cap a drive that included an 11-yard gain by Tillett and a 12-yard burst down to the 2 by Knox, who carried 20 times for 93 yards in the first half. This time, Evan Johnson kicked the extra-point to push Stillwater in front 19-7.
Knox, who as a sophomore set a school record while rushing 48 times in a victory over Hastings last season, approves of the heavy steady diet of hand-offs, even under steamy conditions.
“I owe a lot to the line because they were making those holes for me and it was just my duty to go through there and not fumble, and that’s what I did,” Knox said. “It’s very tiring, but like Walter Payton would always do, he would always keep going. When he’d get hit, he’d never act like he was tired and that’s what I figured our team needed to do. We couldn’t show any tiredness, we had to act like we were just 100 percent all the time.”
LaBore also saved some praise for the offensive line.
“We don’t win this if we don’t establish the line of scrimmage,” the coach said. “We have some big jumbos up front and they were able to handle the heat in the first game and about 50 rushes themselves.”
The Ponies were unable to put Park away until midway through the fourth quarter when Knox capped his four-touchdown night with another 2-yard plunge and Johnson added the kick for a 26-7 lead with 4:52 remaining.
“He’s not very big, he’s not the strongest guy and he’s not the fastest, but he’s got burst and he has vision and toughness and a lot of heart.” LaBore said of Knox.
Stillwater moved the ball on its first two possessions of the second half, but failed to convert after having first-and-goal from the 5 each time.
“We expect our guys to finish when we get opportunities,” LaBore said. “We put the ball inside the 5 three times in the third and fourth quarter and oly came away with points on the third possession. That’s not Stillwater football. It says something our guys to get down there, but we expect more and have to punch that in.”
Each time finished with 339 yards, but used different approaches to get there. The Ponies rushed for 223 yards, compared to just 71 yards on the ground for Park. The Wolfpack did not help themselves while getting flagged eight times for 50 yards including a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a third-down stop to keep a Stillwater drive going in the third. The Ponies, by comparison, were assessed just five yards on a delay of game penalty late in the fourth quarter.
Tillett completed 8 of 18 passes for 106 passes, with five of those throws hauled in by Matt Anderson for 46 yards.
Linebacker Caleb Fick finished with 10 tackles, including nine solo and two for a loss, to help pace the Ponies defensively. He also knocked down a pass to finish with a team-high 25 defensive points. Ian Weisbrod made seven tackles and finished with 15 defensive points while Brian Branch, Mark Houle, Seth Heinen and Andrew Lammers added four solo tackles apiece.
“Our defense adapted and then changed the tempo as far as Park’s offense was concerned,” LaBore said. “We were on our heels (early), but then settled and turned it into more of a shoulder-pad football game so it was a great reaction by our defense.”
Stillwater 0 19 0 7 — 26
Park 7 0 0 0 — 7
Par — Brandyn Tulloch 10 pass from Sam Domeier (Matt Goecke kick) 4:40.
St — Zach Knox 2 run (kick failed) 10:01.
St — Knox 18 run (pass failed) 8:52.
St — Knox 2 run (Evan Johnson kick) 5:10.
St — Knox 2 run (Johnson kick) 4:52.
First downs 20 17
Rushes-yards 52-233 23-71
Passing yards 106 268
Total yards 339 339
Comp-Att-Int. 8-18-0 26-40-0
Fumbles/lost 1/0 0/0
Penalties/yards 1/5 8/50
Punts/avg. 2/20.0 4/22.3
Rushing — St: Zach Knox 36-171, Alec Hill 9-30, Trevor Tillett 2-15, Brooks Carroll 2-13 and Nick Wanovich 1-4; Par: Sam Domeier 11-32, Brandyn Tulloch 6-30 and Elias Arlington 6-9.
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — St: Trevor Tillett 8-18-106-0-0; Par: Sam Domeier 26-40-268-1-0.
Receiving — St: DJ Skie 3-60 and Matt Anderson 5-46; Par: Jeb Melson 4-83, Elias Arlington 6-55, Brandyn Tulloch 5-53, Anthony Juba 5-35, Ken Gay 4-30 and Jack Thalhuber 2-12.
Kickoff returns — St: Caleb Fick 2-24; Par: Ken Gay 4-97 and Elias Arlington 1-25.
Punt returns — St: DJ Skie 1-18; Par: Kyle McDonough 1-15.
Interceptions — St: none; Par: none.
Fumble recoveries — St: none; Par: none.
Stillwater 1 0
East Ridge 1 0
Roseville 1 0
Mounds View 1 0
Hastings 1 0
Cretin-Derham Hall 0 1
White Bear Lake 0 1
Woodbury 0 1
Park-Cottage Grove 0 1
Forest Lake 0 1
Stillwater 26, Park 7
East Ridge 48, WB Lake 15
Hastings 20, Forest Lake 9
Mounds View 27, Woodbury 7
Roseville 15, C-D Hall 12
Week 2 games
Forest Lake at Stillwater
Woodbury at White Bear Lake
Cretin-Derham Hall at Hastings
East Ridge at Roseville
Park at Mounds View