James Nisbett is the Palmer High football team's featured running back, and he's a first down, and often a touchdown, waiting to happen. He departed Thursday night's game with a leg injury long before the first quarter even ended.
Vincent Aumavae is another dangerous running back for the Moose. He hit the exit late in the first half with cramps.
Without those two lethal seniors, Palmer simply unleashed alternative threats. The Moose, ranked No. 3 among large schools, plugged in replacements from their stable of backs, hardly missed a beat and generated a 32-0 nonconference victory over East at Anchorage Football.
Nathan Pempeck covered 60 yards and scored a touchdown on just six carries. Nathan Aumavae gained 45 yards on 12 carries. And David Schneider rolled for 36 yards on four rushes.
In all, traditionally run-heavy Palmer gained 223 yards rushing -- that came at an average of 5.3 yards a pop -- and supplemented that with perfect passing to remain undefeated at 3-0 overall.
Running the option frequently in the first half and going into a more straight-ahead mode in the second half, the Moose showcased depth at fullback and tailback.
"It's solid,'' said Palmer coach Rod Christiansen, who has guided his team to 13 straight playoff appearances. "But obviously James and Vinnie are guys who will go out and score, and turn a 10-yarder into a 50-yarder.
In their brief appearances, those two flashed their firepower. Nisbett's lone carry went for 29 yards -- Christiansen said it's too early to determine how the extent of Nisbett's injury, and holding him out was a precaution. Vincent Aumuvae's 40 yards on three carries included a 23-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.
With those two absent from the offense much of the night, the Moose injected some infrequent passing that was surpassingly effective. Quarterback Zeth Merritt completed all four of his passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns. He connected with Darion Angol on 15-yard score in the second quarter and hooked up with Cody Wells three times for 118 yards and a touchdown. Wells made a lovely catch near the sideline in the first half on a ball directly over his head, hauling it in for 29 yards. And he produced a catch-and-run for a 66-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
"It keeps the defense honest and really changes it up,'' Wells said of using the passing game to supplement the ground game. "Last year in the (25-7 state semifinal loss to eventual champion South), they stacked the box against the run and there wasn't much we could do.''
Palmer managed just 29 yards passing that day. Being able to pass effectively could take the Moose, who compete in the Railbelt Conference deeper into the postseason this year.
"Kids want to be able to do it, so they get excited about it,'' Christiansen said. "We have to be able to do it.''
East's schedule early in this season has been the most difficult in the state, which in one reason the Thunderbirds of the Cook Inlet Conference are 0-3. No. 1-ranked South crushed them 65-6 in their opener, No. 2 Service beat them 46-12 last week and No. 3-ranked Palmer completed the hat trick Thursday.
Palmer limited the T-birds to 120 yards total offense, and just 49 yards in the first half. Palmer defensive lineman Brian Thompson recorded two sacks and manhandled the T-birds. Linebacker Caleb Deemer snuffed back-to-back East plays in the second quarter, linebacker Benjamin Aumavae proved a force throughout the game, and Nathan Aumavae and Angol each picked off passes.
Still, East, which ran the ball better in the second half, usually with it in the hands of Chase Hawk (12 carries, 46 yards), threatened midway through the fourth quarter. The T-birds enjoyed first-and-goal at the Palmer 5, but an errant snap that quarterback Clayton Washburn couldn't handle turned into a turnover -- East has committed 15 turnovers in three games. That helped the Moose, who ran out the last 5:09 of the game, earn their first shutout of the season.
"We stepped it up,'' said Wells, who doubles as a linebacker. "We really wanted that goose-egg.''
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Palmer 12 7 7 6 -- 32
East 0 0 0 0 -- 0
Palmer -- Merritt 5 run (run failrf), 7:11
Palmer -- V. Aumavae 23 run (run failrf), 1:49
Palmer -- Angol 15 pass from Merritt (Pempeck kick), 8:46
Palmer -- Wells 66 pass from Merritt (Pempeck kick), 8:16
Palmer -- Pempeck 9 run (kick failrf), 11:36.
First downs 15 9
Rushes-yards 42-223 29-104
Passing yards 133 16
Return yards 37 39
Passes 4-4-0 4-13-2
Punts 2-41.5 5-36.0
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties-yards 10-70 9-65
RUSHING -- Palmer: Pempeck 6-60, N. Aumavae 12-45, V. Aumavae 3-40, Schneider 4-36, Nisbett 1-29, Merritt 12-18, Cochran 1-(-2). East: Hawk 12-46, Lealao 3-28, Schnellbaecher 3-26, Brown 2-15, Johnson 1-1, Merritt 8-(-12).
PASSING -- Palmer: Merritt 4-4-0--133. East: Washburn 4-13-2--16.
RECEIVING -- Palmer: Wells 3-118, Angol 1-15. East: Johnson 2-12, Seui 1-8, Lealao 1-(-4).
By DOYLE WOODY