Skittering around behind his big line, the quick and elusive junior quarterback for Exira-Elk Horn-Kimballton raced for 200 yards and five touchdowns and tossed another to his brother Thursday afternoon to spoil Newell-Fonda's first ever trip to the UNI-Dome in the State 8-man football semifinal.
The Mustangs dug themselves a hole early. Two plays into the game, Brady Bohe lost the handle during a run and Exira recovered on the NF 18 yard line. Dalton Anderson's apparent interception for the Mustangs was negated by a pass interference call, and moments later, Exira scored as the dual-threat QB Peppers rolled out, found a seam and strolled in from seven yards out. The PAT made it 7-0.
"Basically we came out and we were all very excited to play in the Dome. It was a great experience to get there in the first place," Mustang QB Gabe Podraza said. "We had a turnover, and that just kind of kicked us and took the breath out of us a little bit."
Exira marched rapidly downfield, but the Mustang defense steeled, and Zach Petersen came in to kick the 22-yard field goal for a 10-0 Spartans lead.
Newell-Fonda was bit by an error again on their next possession, a long pass play into Exira territory negated by another penalty. On the next play, Podraza got blasted as he tried to release the ball, and Exira's Bret Johnson collected the wounded duck for a pick-six score. The Mustangs blocked the extra-point attempt to keep it within two scores at 16-0.
NF responded, as Bryce Nielsen hauled in a clutch 28-yard pass, and prime running back Bohe took a direct snap and barged inside the 20 for another first down. Podraza winged a pass to the edge of the end zone, but receiver Nielsen couldn't get his feet down in bounds on the receiving end, and the ball was turned over on downs.
The first quarter ended with NF's Dalton Anderson headed to a Cedar Falls hospital with a broken collarbone, and quarterback Podraza writhing on the turf after a violent hit. The Anderson injury was the biggest turning point in the game according to Podraza.
"Honestly, I think [the loss] had a lot to do with Dalton going down. He was my go-to-guy when I needed a big play [on offense]," Podraza said. "I feel he's a necessity for us. He made a lot of big tackles and big plays [this season.] You could see what kind of a defensive threat he was just by the interception he laid our for when he broke his shoulder. That took the life out of us."
The Mustangs were forced to punt again on the ensuing possession, pinning the Spartans inside their own 2, but Peppers burned NF again, breaking out of a pack and winning a 60-yard footrace to the end zone. The kick gave Exira a commanding 29-0 lead late in the first half, but they weren't done. The Spartans forced NF into another three-and-out, then launched a long pass to Tate Simpson into the Mustangs' red zone, and Peppers ran in his fourth TD of the half from 10 yards out on the next play, leaving shellshocked Newell-Fonda with a 36-0 deficit, triggering the continuous clock before the break.
The Spartans picked up in the third stanza where they left off, driving 48 yards efficiently, with Drew Peppers hitting older brother Nick with an 8-yard TD pass. The kick made it 43-0.
Any thoughts of a shutout disappeared in a matter of seconds, however, as NF's Bohe sprinted 60 yards up the sideline on the second play of the Mustang possession for a score, going over the 2,000-yard mark on the season in the process. Peppers answered with a 40-yard keeper scamper to set Exira up, then sneaking the final yard for the score. A failed conversion left it at 49-7 as the third quarter expired. Exira kept many starters in the game until the final minutes, keeping the ball safely on the ground, while Newell-Fonda began to give their substitutes a chance to get in the game. The Spartans scored once more late, on a 27-yard Jarred Hansen run.
A choked up Mustang head coach Brian Wilken said following the game, "It's the worst time of the year because, you know it over, and for 11 awfully special seniors this could be the last time they put those pads on."
For the Mustangs, the contest was far from their usual offensive juggernaught production. They rushed for 121 yards, and completed 3-of-13 passes for 41 yards. After the first quarter, they didn't have a first down. Bohe led the rushing with 104 yards on 13 carries, but Podraza, an elusive runner from under center, was held for 24 yards. They were flagged with eight penalties and gave away two turnovers, while Exira had only two penalties and no give-aways.
"They were a very physical team," Podraza said. "They were a very hard fought and well coached team. Hats off to them. It wasn't anything we had never seen before-they just knew how to execute."
Wilken had a pretty simple explanation for the lopsided affair, "They outblocked us. They outtackled us, and they won the football game. We didn't play exceptionally well early, and when you don't do that on this stage, it's going to be a tough wall. It's nothing that our kids can't do, it's just, their kids did it better."
In the earlier semi contest Thursday, 13-0 Don Bosco demolished Adair-Casey 78-21, setting up a championship battle with Exira-Elk Horn-Kimballton next Thursday at 10 a.m. Newell-Fonda ends its season 12-1, the first local team to make the State final four in over two decades.
The highly successful season for the Mustangs wasn't exactly at the forefront of their coach's mind following the game.
"I'm proud of what we've accomplished and those things, but it doesn't make it any easier right now," Wilken said.