Anchorage — When South and Service meet on the gridiron, football philosophers get an opportunity to debate.
Last weekend's meeting between the Cook Inlet Conference's top two teams was more than just two rivals battling for first place. It was a clash of the running game against the passing game.
The passing team won this time.
Service wrested the top spot in the CIC standings from South in a 37-36 shootout that featured 59 pass attempts from Service quarterback C.J. Toomer and 50 rushing attempts from the defending state champion Wolverines.
"I believe the running game is gonna beat the passing game, and I still believe it," said South coach John Lewis. "We proved it last year. We almost proved it here."
South (4-2) defeated Service (5-1) in last season's state title game, 28-19, avenging a 37-23 loss to the Cougars in the 2011 state title game. Last weekend's meeting might have gone the Wolverines' way if it weren't for losing the turnover battle, 5-3, missing two extra points and missing a short field-goal attempt with less than two minutes to play.
In a game that went down to the wire, the teams couldn't have utilized more contrasting offensive strategies. The Cougars attempted 40 passes in the first half on their way to more than tripling South's 14 pass attempts and gaining 435 yards through the air to South's 126.
The Wolverines did the bulk of their damage on the ground, gaining 278 rushing yards to Service's 65, nearly doubling Service's 27 carries.
"I'm a defensive guy, but basically it is fun," Service coach Kevin Kern said of the offensive show. "C. J.'s a great guy and a great quarterback, and he does a great job. If we stick to our game plan, this is the kind of victory we get."
Toomer's 1,729 passing yards this season more than doubles the yardage of any other CIC quarterback and his 21 touchdowns are triple that of the nearest competitor. With two regular-season games remaining and a postseason to get through, Toomer has a shot at breaking the unofficial single-season passing record of 2,559 yards set by West's Conor Feckley in 2011. With or without Toomer, Service would likely still adhere to a gunslinger mentality, Kern said.
"I got about 10 receivers that do a great job," said Kern. "We got another quarterback who can throw. We got two backups that can throw."
Lewis has coached football at South since the school opened in the fall of 2004, leading the Wolverines to state titles in 2006 and 2012. Each year, Lewis uses a multitude of running backs to pound the rock and wear out defenses. Its rough nature is the reason he believes the running game is the tried and true method for success against any opponent.
South's defense is geared to stopping the run, which has worked wonders against the rest of the CIC. The Wolverines surrendered just 13 points in the four CIC games prior to meeting Service. A new defensive scheme was in place to take on the Cougars and it worked well enough in the early going to help South build a 21-2 lead. Things started going awry when two of South's top defensive backs got hurt, Lewis said.
The injuries forced South into a zone defense that Toomer picked apart by more easily targeting specific defenders and areas, Lewis said. Toomer fired four touchdown passes after the South injuries, cutting that 21-2 South lead to 21-16 with a pair of scores before halftime and throwing two more touchdowns in the second half.
"He (Toomer) didn't throw but one ball in my zone the whole game," said South safety and quarterback Alec Valdez. "He didn't even put it where there was a chance I could get a pick. That's something I need to learn from (as a quarterback)."
Valdez proved a capable passer with touchdown passes of 26 and 28 yards, but also threw three interceptions. A runner first, Valdez showed off blazing speed on a 59-yard touchdown run on the opening play of the second half, giving South a 27-16 lead.
"The first play of the second half, everybody connected and everything was perfect and everything started to flow," Valdez said. "Honestly, more of the time, I'm asking the coach to run the ball. I played running back since second grade and that's my thing."
With Service and South holding the top two spots in the CIC, they've each clinched playoff berths. Depending on seeding, there is a chance the teams could meet in the large-school state title game for the third straight season, pitting pass against run on the state's biggest stage.
"It's a game of patience," Lewis said. "These guys, they make big plays, so you just gotta be patient."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
High School football
COOK INLET CONFERENCE
Monroe 54, Vosnesenka 0
Barrow at Seward, 5 p.m.
Chugiak vs. East, AFS, 7 p.m.
South at Dimond, 7 p.m.
West Valley at North Pole, 7 p.m.
Colony at Palmer, 7 p.m.
Juneau at Wasilla, 7 p.m.
Nikiski at Eielson, 1 p.m.
Service vs. West, AFS, 2 p.m.
Skyview at Soldotna, 2 p.m.
Houston at Kodiak, 2 p.m.
Lathrop at Homer, 3 p.m.
Eagle River vs. Bartlett, AFS, 7 p.m.
Ketchikan at Thunder Mtn., 7 p.m.
CIC Leaders Through Week 6
|Gabe Mingledorff, Chugiak||83||587||4||7.1||Lui Faamasino, West||85||519||6||6.1||J.J. Tanuvasa, Dimond||57||365||3||6.4||Justice Augafa, South||50||364||5||7.3||Ed Hall, Eagle River||98||362||6||3.7|
|C.J. Toomer, Service||108||211||1,729||21||3||Jeremiah Maga, Dimond||50||97||680||7||9||Tyrone Davis, West||39||77||574||7||3||Peter Kott, Eagle River||31||89||537||3||6||Zyrelle Jones, Bartlett||39||94||415||4||5|
|Nashon Fromm, Service||28||492||5||17.6||Armend Aliju, Service||22||304||5||13.8||Leroy Elliot, West||21||443||6||21.1||Marquise Rayford, West||20||237||1||11.9||Marquez Buster, Dimond||20||266||3||13.3|