In order for Muscatine to have a shot at pulling off an upset at home Friday night, coach Jake Mueller knew his football team would have to play better in all three phases than it had in the first three games of the season.
However, less than three minutes into the game, Muscatine launched a snap over punter Carson Borde’s head and Johnston recovered inside the five and scored moments later.
“It’s rough,” Mueller said of the high snap. “The kids are trying, practicing to get better. We’ve got young guys stepping into new roles and when you have that, things are going to happen. No question that hurt us early.”
Muscatine responded with a touchdown, but in a blink of an eye, Johnston, the No. 7 ranked team in Class 4A, turned a tie game into a three-touchdown lead. Johnston never relinquished its lead and went on to comfortably top Muscatine, 42-7.
“It just shows against really good teams small mistakes just add up really quickly,” Mueller said. “You just can’t have it. We had some self-inflicted stuff early and good teams capitalize on that. We have a lot of stuff to clean up.”
Moments after Peyton Williams caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Noah Storts to give Johnston (3-1) a 7-0 lead, Muscatine (3-1) responded with a two play, 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game.
Senior quarterback Carson Orr found Tim Nimely on a screen pass, and the sophomore running back sprinted 66 yards into Johnston territory.
On the very next play, sophomore Eli Gaye lined up at quarterback in the wildcat formation and ran 14 yards untouched for a touchdown to tie the score, 7-7.
“It’s something where you have a good player and you have to get him the ball in different ways,” Mueller said of putting Gaye in the wildcat. “He obviously is pretty good and that’s something we’ll continue to grow with.”
However, that would be the only time the Muscatine offense would reach the end zone all game. Meanwhile, Johnston reeled off three consecutive touchdowns using a read option attack where six different players ran the ball in the first half.
Nuutele Davis gave Johnston a 14-7 lead midway through the first quarter with a six-yard touchdown run, and Jordan Rusch, who finished with 11 rushes for 99 yards, scored one of his two touchdowns on a spread option where he dashed 59 yards untouched and gave Johnston a 21-7 lead.
The Dragons weren't done, however, as moments after forcing a Nimley fumble, Davis scored another touchdown to give them a 28-7 lead late in the opening quarter.
“It’s tough to replicate it in practice,” Mueller said of Johnston’s option attack. “They have some really good athletes running it, what we saw in practice was not that. It happened so quick and so fast and we didn’t make adjustments early.
“They’re a good football team, a top-five caliber football team and you have to play well. We didn’t play well enough.”
However, the Muskies did find success at various point in the game and despite the score, Mueller felt they got better Friday night. After a Takpor Tiah interception late in the first half, they drove inside the Johnston five but were stopped on downs. Muscatine had another chance to score in the third quarter, but its drive once against stalled in the red zone.
The Muskies, against the toughest front seven they’ve seen this season in Mueller’s eyes, rushed 22 times for 61 yards. Orr passed for 117 yards, but Muscatine struggled to find consistent offense without a reliable rushing attack once Johnston took away the bubble screens Muscatine has had success with all season.
“It made things pretty difficult,” Orr said on not being able to rely on bubble screens. “That’s one way we like to spread the field and make sure the defensive backs are staying disciplined.”
Now, the Muskies will move on to district play, and Mueller hopes Friday’s setback was a good lesson for his young football team.
“They’re kind of where we want to be,” Mueller said of Johnston. “All the little things add up. Hopefully we can see that and in the future play cleaner and play with a team of that caliber.”