Bulldogs use running game to trip T-Birds

— The North Callaway Thunderbirds were sapped by the Mexico Bulldogs’ relentless running attack, ruining Kevin O’Neal’s debut as head coach.

Playing in sweltering conditions, Karsten Ekern rushed for a game-high 166 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries Friday night and Class 4 Mexico surged to a 35-12 win over North Callaway in the season opener for both teams.

Four different players ran for touchdowns as the Bulldogs gained all 298 yards of their total offense on the ground.

“Mexico did a good job of blocking up front and wore us down,” said O’Neal, a 1994 North Callaway graduate who took over the Thunderbirds last January after longtime head coach Mike Emmons announced his retirement after 24 seasons. “We weren’t in a jamboree (scrimmage) and I think it kind of showed (Friday night).

“The heat got to us with as many players as we had going both ways (on offense and defense). Mexico did a lot better job of executing and they’re a good ballclub.”

The game started off promising enough for North Callaway, a Class 2 program. The Bulldogs won the coin toss but deferred, and the Thunderbirds took the opening kickoff and drove 60 yards in 11 plays to tally their first points of the season. Senior quarterback Cole Branson was able to convert a fourth-and-11 when he hooked up with senior tight end Trevor Crisp on a 21-yard touchdown pass.

Branson missed the extra point, leaving North Callaway with a 6-0 edge with 6 minutes, 57 seconds to play in the first quarter. Mexico then countered with a 20-yard touchdown run from D’Milo Nunnelly at the 3:56 mark to tie the game. The Bulldogs failed on the two-point conversion attempt.

Mexico — which was also playing its first game under new head coach Steve Haag — continued to lean on its running game in the second quarter, breaking out for 22 points to take control. Ekern scored his first touchdown on a 6-yard run with 9:04 remaining in the first half and Nunnelly ran in the two-point conversion to give the Bulldogs a 14-6 lead.

Spencer Thomas then sprinted 13 yards for a touchdown with 3:57 left and Mexico carried a 28-6 advantage into halftime when Brit Wilson scored from 7 yards out with :25 to go.

After both teams went scoreless in the third quarter, the Thunderbirds finally found the end zone again when Branson flipped a 5-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Tyler Mattes with 10:42 to play in the game. Ekern, though, sealed the Bulldogs’ triumph when he raced 73 yards for a touchdown with 2:16 remaining.

North Callaway totalled 163 yards of offense, including 124 rushing. Branson paced the Thunderbirds with 12 carries for 69 yards, but was just 6-of-17 passing for 39 yards and one interception. Sophomore running back J.T. Higgins also ran for 55 yards on nine attempts, while Crisp had four catches for 31 yards.

“This is not the way we wanted to start the season,” O’Neal said. “We started out well and executed on our first drive, but then we didn’t execute for the rest of the game on both sides of the ball.”

North Callaway stays on the road this week when it travels to Tipton. The Cardinals were shut out at Lexington 40-0 in Friday night’s season opener.

“We have a lot to work on and we will get better,” O’Neal said.

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