When the grand stage of the state high school football playoffs proved most fraught with peril Saturday afternoon, the undefeated and top-ranked Service Cougars got spectacular plays from their most spectacular players.
And that averted the prospect of a spectacular upset.
Quarterback Amu Aukusitino delivered a tackle-breaking, ankle-busting 34-yard, go-ahead touchdown run with less than five minutes to play, and Alan Busey made a leaping interception with 78 seconds to go to earn Service a 34-32 victory over Palmer at Dimond Alumni Field.
Those plays capped big days for both players in a game that matched Service, the No. 1 seed from the Cook Inlet Conference, against Palmer, the No. 4 seed from the Railbelt Conference.
Busey caught four passes for 127 yards and two first-quarter touchdowns, and the first of his two interceptions and subsequent 46-yard return prefaced the Cougars' second-quarter touchdown.
Palmer turned Aukusitino's two first-half interceptions into 13 points, but the junior also had a hand in all five Service touchdowns. He threw three touchdown passes in the first half and ran for two touchdowns in the second half.
"Those guys came through at opportune times,'' said Service coach Jason Caldarera.
The win in the large-school state quarterfinals kept the Cougars (8-0-1) from enduring the nightmare West suffered two seasons ago, when it likewise rolled undefeated through the CIC regular season and was ranked No. 1, only to be dispatched by No. 4 Railbelt seed North Pole in the quarterfinals.
Only when Busey leaped over Palmer receiver Steven Lee and intercepted Jackson Buresh's pass on a third-and-5 from the Service 26-yard line with 1:18 to go were the Cougars able to exhale.
"I initially had a man running a go route and I saw the slot man run an out route, and if he caught it, it would have been a first down,'' said Busey. "So I jumped it.
"Palmer was definitely a good opponent. Apparently, they scouted us real well and knew what we like to do. We just had to show our heart and character at the end.''
Until that game-clinching pick, Palmer's bold calls -- three fake punts by Jared Straight, two of which gained first downs -- combined with its big plays and Service's usual penalties to produce a thriller that featured four lead changes in the second half.
"We played a good game, and we just came up short,'' Buresh said quietly. "It's the playoffs -- we had to go for everything.''
Palmer led 32-27 when it punted and Daniel Murakami's 5-yard return set the Cougars up at their 23 with 7:39 to go. The Cougars unleashed a 10-play drive in which Aukusitino predictably made the two most pivotal plays.
Service faced fourth-and-10 at the Palmer 45 with 5:09 left when Aukusitino, under pressure, escaped the pocket, flashed to his right and gained 11 yards for a first down. On the next play, he ran the option right, cut back to the middle and raced to a 34-yard touchdown -- he broke at least three tackles and made a couple of wicked cuts -- that lived up to the word printed on the protective pad that covers his lower back: "BYE.''
"All that comes from people trusting me,'' Aukusitino said. "And I have to trust my line. They're the reason we have so many passing and rushing yards.
"It doesn't come from one person. It comes from the whole team.''
Early on, the Cougars, who have trounced a majority of their opponents, looked as if they might roll another opponent.
Their first two possessions required just 10 combined plays to go 136 yards and rack two touchdowns. Aukusitino hit Busey with scoring strikes of 18 yards and 62 yards. Those touchdowns sandwiched Buresh's 2-yard touchdown run, and Service led 14-7.
After Busey's first pick and return early in the second half, Aukusitino hit Trevor Williamson with a 15-yard touchdown pass. Taylor Bomar's extra point padded the Cougars' lead to 21-7.
But Palmer (4-5) rallied for a 68-yard drive capped by Douglas Chadwick's 22-yard reverse for a touchdown -- a drive aided by a Service penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct on third-and-1 from midfield. And after Luke Huen recovered the subsequent bouncing kickoff that three Cougars could not smother, Ian Ahrens closed a four-play drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. The extra point failed, leaving Service clinging to a 21-20 lead with 1:27 left before halftime.
The Moose nearly moved ahead after Benjamin Aumavae picked off Aukusitino three plays later. Palmer faced fourth-and-33 from its own 49 with three seconds left, and Buresh hit Chadwick with a pass over the top of the secondary. With time expired, Tyrick Williams dragged down Chadwick at the Service 7 to keep the Cougars from trailing.
Even so, Buresh ripped off an 82-yard touchdown run on the third play of the second half to give Palmer its first lead at 26-21.
But Aukusitino answered with a 2-yard touchdown run to close a 10-play, 70-yard drive that oddly, for a pass-happy Service team, featured nothing but running plays. That was the Cougars' answer to Palmer's four-deep pass coverage.
Palmer regained the lead at 32-27 when Buresh found Lee ridiculously wide open behind the Service secondary for a 43-yard strike midway through the third quarter.
Aukusitino furnished the final scoring answer with his jaw-dropping, fourth-quarter touchdown run. Yet Palmer did not go down easy. The Moose were on the march before Busey's interception sealed victory.
"You played your hearts out,'' Palmer coach Rod Christiansen told his team afterward. "You did everything we asked you to do.''
Service, though, is the team that advances, and Caldarera believes the close call will keep his players focused the rest of the way.
"We live another day,'' he said.
Find Doyle Woody's hockeyblog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Palmer 7 13 12 0 -- 32
Service 14 7 6 7 -- 34
Service -- Busey 18 pass from Aukusitino (Bomar kick), 10:28.
Palmer -- Buresh 2 run (Wisner kick), 5:29.
Service -- Busey 62 pass from Aukusitino (Bomar kick), 4:44.
Service -- Williamson 15 pass from Aukusitino (Bomar kick), 8:26.
Palmer -- Chadwick 22 run (Wisner kick), 3:25.
Palmer -- Ahrens 2 run (kick failed), 1:27.
Palmer -- Buresh 82 run (pass failed), 10:32.
Service -- Aukusitino 1 run (kick failed), 7:23.
Palmer -- Lee 43 pass from Buresh (run failed), 5:37.
Service -- Aukusitino 34 run (Bomar kick)), 4:49.
First downs 16 17
Rushes-yards 50-253 33-200
Passing yards 149 201
Return yards 119 86
Passes 7-21-1 13-25-2
Punts 2-29.0 1-55.0
Fumbles-lost 1-0 1-1
Penalties-yards 6-50 11-123
RUSHING -- Palmer: Buresh 11-110, Ahrens 29-63, Straight 3-34, Chadwick 1-22, Merritt 5-16, Nisbett 1-8, King 1-0. Service: Aukusitino 14-105, Murakami 15-82, Ilalio 3-7, Pili 1-6.
PASSING -- Palmer: Buresh 7-21-1--149. Service: Aukusitino 13-24-2--201, Murakami 0-1-0--0.
RECEIVING -- Palmer: Lee 4-81, Chadwick 2-69, Nisbett 1-(-1). Service: Busey 4-127, Butler 4-33, Ilalio 3-28, Williamson 1-15, Murakami 1-(-2) .