Defense never proved a problem for the South High football team Saturday -- the Wolverines' 24-0 Cook Inlet Conference win at Eagle River furnished ample evidence -- but its offense sputtered early.
The game remained scoreless through five South possessions, in large part because Eagle River delivered a physical performance and, in small part, because Wolverines starting quarterback Alec Valdez did not play both ways throughout. Competing with a bruised back, he played only safety through most of three quarters.
In any event, the Wolverines went three-and-out on their first three possessions. In their first five series combined, they managed just 58 yards total offense on 25 plays. That's hardly the stuff of South's fast-paced offense or its usually exceptional ground game.
But Justice Augafa, with a major assist from Trevor Lowry, changed all that with about four minutes remaining in the first half.
Augafa fielded a punt at the 50-yard line and enjoyed room to zoom. He burst to his left to gain the edge on most of the Wolves' coverage and saw only one Eagle River defender with an angle on him. That's what Lowry saw too.
"I saw the guy and I just lit up, and I was so excited,'' said Lowry.
Lowry promptly took out the pursuing Eagle River player with a crushing block to spring Augafa, who blazed up the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown.
"Trevor cleaned him up, and cleared it out for me,'' said Augafa, who recovered a fumble on defense. "The team came out flat and that punt return sparked us.''
Tyler Kile, subbing for Valdez at quarterback, hit Alain Devoe with a two-point conversion pass to give South an 8-0 lead it took into intermission.
From there, No. 4-ranked South's defense continued to hold Eagle River in check, and its offense sparked when Valdez began playing quarterback late in the third quarter -- the Wolverines scored on their first two possessions with Valdez in charge.
South (3-1 overall, 3-0 CIC) was coming off a 19-0 loss at Moorpark (Calif.) last week. Eagle River (1-3, 1-2 CIC) remains in the hunt for a playoff berth because five of the CIC's eight teams will qualify for the postseason.
South's defense did an especially solid job of containing Eagle River's Ed Hall, a punishing running back. Hall at linebacker keyed a Wolves defense that twice forced the Wolverines to turn the ball over on downs, including once within a whisper of the goal line. On offense, Hall carried the ball just nine times for one yard -- on perhaps all but two of his rushes, South defenders made first contact well behind the line of scrimmage, and help soon arrived.
"We were sure to key in on him,'' Lowry said. "He's a big man, and he's a strong man.''
South limited Eagle River to 143 yards total offense, snatched two turnovers and forced eight punts. Eagle River hamstrung itself with 10 penalties.
With Valdez at quarterback, South scored on two straight possessions in the fourth quarter, combining for 119 yards on 18 plays in those drives. Andrew West scored on a 5-yard run and a 1-yard run to supplement a day in which he also played defense, averaged 33.6 yards on five punts -- even as he twice angled short kicks to put Eagle River deep in its own territory -- and chased down Wolves punt returner Isaiah Banks inside the South 10.
West was forced to make the shutout-saving tackle when his coverage team inexplicably gave up on a punt he angled near the sideline. Banks proved wily -- he saw that the Wolverines relaxed, snatched the ball on the run and set sail 66 yards.
But South's defense held.
The Wolverines are defending large-school state champions, but they see room for improvement this season, Valdez said. He rushed for 47 yards on just five carries and completed 4 of 5 passes for 56 yards.
"We need to play to our potential, not to our opponents,'' Valdez said. "Not that (Eagle River) is a bad team -- they're pretty good, and they were tough, mentally tougher than they have been. But we need to be as good as we can be.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
South 0 8 0 16 -- 24
Eagle River 0 0 0 0 -- 0
South -- Augafa 50 punt return (Devoe pass from Kile), 3:43
South -- West 5 run (Augafa pass from Valdez), 9:39.
South -- West 1 run (West run), 5:07.
South Eagle River
First downs 12 9
Rushes-yards 55-191 35-33
Passing yards 59 134
Return yards 111 94
Passes 8-10-0 7-20-1
Punts 5-33.6 8-33.0
Fumbles-lost 3-2 5-1
Penalties-yards 6-53 10-75
RUSHING -- South: Augafa 9-49, Valdez 5-47, Stephan 11-42, West 13-29, Hoover 14-22, Light 1-3, No. 12 1-3, Maisey 1-0, Kile 2-(-4). Eagle River: Kott 19-25, Collins 4-9, Hall 9-1, I. Banks 3-(-2).
PASSING -- South: Valdez 4-5-0--56, Kile 4-5-0--3. Eagle River: Kott 7-21-1--117, Metzel 1-1-0--17.
RECEIVING -- South: Devoe 2-37, Micks 2-4, Augafa 2-(-1), Ottum 1-12, Stephan 1-7. Eagle River: Evans 3-21, Hall 2-19, Metzel 1-50, I. Banks 1-17, Collins 1-10.