Anchorage — With strong defense and some big second-half plays Friday at Tom Huffer Sr. Stadium, South handed Palmer its first loss of the season and earned a spot in the large-school state football championship game for a second straight season.
The 25-7 victory means South (8-2) will play the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between Service and West.
Service beat South in last season’s state championship game.
“We got unfinished business,” South senior Dalton Sauder said. “We want Service, but we’ll take whoever they put against us.”
Palmer (9-1) used ferocious defense and an opportunistic play to take a 7-0 lead into halftime but couldn’t recreate the same formula in the second half.
“South has come out and played real well in the second half all year,” Palmer coach Rod Christiansen said.
Palmer, led by a game-high 73 rushing yards from Luke Heun, scored its only touchdown on Heun’s 11-yard run near the end of the first half.
The touchdown came right after a botched snap by South that sent the ball 18 yards behind the line of scrimmage, where Palmer recovered it on the South 11.
The Wolverines were more motivated than discouraged by the haltime deficit, Sauder said. They thought if they could just execute in the second half, things would go their way, he said.
South capped a 62-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Zach Lujan to Wade Ellis with five minutes remaining in the third quarter and took an 8-7 lead on a two-point conversion run by Sharif Taha.
The Wolverines forced Palmer to punt on its next possession and South’s Kahlil Autry made the Moose pay with a 96-yard return for a touchdown to put South up 15-7.
“That punt return was kinda the play of the game,” Christiansen said.
South added a 36-yard field goal from Eyob Imlach and a 2-yard touchdown run from Tommy Hopp in the fourth quarter.
Hopp’s touchdown came three plays after he broke a 43-yard run on a fourth-and-three play from the Palmer 48, removing all hope for a Palmer comeback with about four minutes remaining.
For Palmer, a team that blew out many of its opponents in the Railbelt Conference and maintained the top ranking in the state for much of the season, the loss was tough to swallow.
“I don’t think the guys thought it was possible to lose,” Christiansen said.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
Palmer 0 7 0 0 — 7
South 0 0 15 10 — 25
Palmer — Heun 11 run (Kahler kick), 6:36
South — Ellis 3 pass from Lujan (Taha run), 5:00
South — Autry 96 punt return (Imlach kick), 1:20
South — Imlach 36 field goal, 10:15.
South — Hopp 2 run (Imlach kick), 2:07
First downs 10 13
Rushes-yards 41-141 32-113
Passing yards 29 94
Return yards 126 111
Passes 3-10-0 10-17-0
Punts 5-32.0 5-30.6
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1
Penalties-yards 9-65 5-45
RUSHING — Palmer: Heun 14-73; Nisbett 14-29; Aumavae 5-22; Christiansen 5-12; Myers 1-5; Merritt 2-0. South: Faagau 3-2; Autry 3-15; Williams 8-11; Lujan 5-(-10); Hopp 7-54; Taha 2-9; Esplin 4-32.
PASSING — Palmer: Christiansen 3-10-0--29. South: Lujan 10-17-0--94
RECEIVING — Palmer: Meyers 2-11; Niekamp 1-18. South: Brown 2-10; Page 2-22; Williams 2-(-2); Hopp 1-22; Ellis 2-10; Settle 1-18.