When crunch time arrived late Friday night, so did Chugiak's Kenny Pegues -- in the East backfield, where he delivered so much crunch it propelled the Mustangs into the postseason.
Pegues recorded three sacks on three consecutive T-birds snaps from scrimmage in the final 88 seconds. The senior snuffed East's penultimate drive on downs and then triggered the fumble that not only furnished Chugiak's second defensive touchdown of the game, but also secured a 27-13 Cook Inlet Conference victory at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Chugiak's come-from-behind win earned it the fourth of the CIC's allotted five spots in the large-schools playoffs -- also in are Service, South and West.
The fourth-ranked Mustangs (5-2, 4-2 CIC) led 20-13 when East faced fourth-and-12 from the Chugiak 41 in the waning minutes. As T-birds quarterback Clayton Washburn rolled out to his left, Pegues raced in on Washburn's blind side from his spot at linebacker and dropped him for a 10-yard loss that turned the ball over to Chugiak on downs.
With just 1:28 left and East down to one timeout, it appeared Chugiak was safe. But the Mustangs fumbled on second down and East's Tarini Tosi recovered at the Chugiak 46 with 1:13 remaining.
Yet Pegues promptly sacked Washburn for a 5-yard loss on first down, then furnished yet another sack on second down. He jarred the ball from Washburn and Chugiak defensive end Matt Oldenkamp returned it 41 yards for an insurance touchdown.
Earlier this season, Pegues delivered consecutive sacks in the final minute to preserve a 27-26 upset of Service. When the Mustangs' defense needs someone clutch, Pegues is its crutch.
"We've moved him between linebacker and defensive end and, yeah, I'm biased, but when he wants to get somewhere, I don't think anyone can stop him,'' said Chugiak defensive coordinator Jamie Mayo.
Pegues, who is playing through an injury on a team that is battered and bruised -- "We're so beat up right now, we're holding it together with Scotch tape and baling wire,'' said Mustangs coach Duncan Shackelford -- said the gravity of the moment late in the game inspired him.
"It just clicked in my head, like, 'If we really want to get to the playoffs, how bad to we want it?' '' he said. "I figured if I led the guys, they'd follow.''
Oldenkamp said Pegues, a senior who started for Chugiak as a freshman, provided the critical, clutch work that generated his late fumble return.
"He's an amazing player,'' Oldenkamp said. "He's determined, he's athletic. I don't know what else to say. You have to watch him every day to believe it.''
The Mustangs needed their defense to make a difference against winless East (0-6, 0-5 CIC) because their offense struggled mightily against the T-birds. East, buoyed by Tosi on the line and Presley Piliati at linebacker, held Chugiak to just 97 yards total offense, and a mere seven first downs, on 42 plays from scrimmage.
Chugiak's Gabe Mingledorff, the conference's leading rusher entering the weekend, returned a fumble 88 yards for a touchdown. He also intercepted a Washburn pass in the end zone. And defensive back Kenny Lee, who endured some tough moments, redeemed himself with an interception on his 4-yard line with less than eight minutes to play.
East, meanwhile, more than doubled Chugiak's output, gaining 224 yards. But the T-birds were undone by their five turnovers -- three fumbles and two interceptions -- and 13 penalties, not to mention errant snaps when Washburn was in the shotgun and many plays where they were uncertain about their formations.
Even so, the T-birds cashed in after a botched Chugiak snap during an attempted punt in the first quarter. Washburn hit Anthony Pili with a 4-yard pass to furnish a 7-0 lead.
Chugiak answered by marching 54 yards in just 51 seconds -- Mingledorff scored on a 1-yard run. The two-point conversion failed, so East still led 7-6.
Mingledorff's fumble return with more than four minutes left before halftime staked Chugiak to a 12-7 lead at the break, but East opened the second half with a drive that culminated in Mila Talo's 30-yard touchdown run that gained the T-birds a 13-12 lead.
Mingledorff's 5-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter put the Mustangs ahead for good on a night when East dominated time of possession by owning the football for more than 34 of the 48 minutes played.
Still, with one regular-season game remaining, the Mustangs have secured the postseason for themselves and Shackelford, who before the season started announced his retirement after 10 seasons at Dimond -- he won two state titles guiding the Lynx -- and 10 more at Chugiak.
"It means a lot,'' Pegues said. "I've been with Coach Shack for four years now, and he told me he was only going to be here until I was a senior, so I want to help take him all the way.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Chugiak 6 6 0 15 -- 27
East 7 0 6 0 -- 13
East -- Pili 4 pass from Washburn (Andrew kick), 9:15
Chugiak -- Mingledorff 1 run (run failed), 8:24
Chugiak -- Mingledorff 88 fumble return (kick failed), 4:28
East -- Talo 30 run (run failed), 9:44.
Chugiak -- Mingledorff 5 run (Mingledorff run), 9:52.
Chugiak -- Oldenkamp 41 fumble return (Jorgensen kick), :31.
First downs 7 14
Rushes-yards 36-94 41-129
Passing yards 3 95
Return yards 223 50
Passes 1-6-0 10-24-2
Punts 4-25.5 3-33.0
Fumbles-lost 3-1 5-3
Penalties-yards 8-85 13-84
RUSHING -- Chugiak: Mingledorff 13-55, Stewart 5-31, Carnahan 4-20, Forbush 4-10, Quigley 7-4, Team 1-(-26). East: Talo 12-50, Vanderpool 9-40, Schnellbaecher 6-37, Pili 5-25, Bennett 1-(-4), Washburn 9-(-19).
PASSING -- Chugiak: Stewart 1-6-0--3. East: Washburn 10-24-2--95.
RECEIVING -- Chugiak: Lee 1-4. East: Talo 3-51, Pili 3-30, Berry 3-10, Vanderpool 1-4.
By DOYLE WOODY