VERONA — Two well-regarded defenses figured to foreshadow a tense, lower-scoring struggle between the Sun Prairie and Verona football teams Friday night.
Instead, two explosive offenses that could strike through the air and pound on the ground dominated, turning the Big Eight Conference duel into a shootout at Curtis Jones Field.
Sun Prairie junior running back Nathan Schauer rushed for three touchdowns, senior quarterback Richie Gilles ran for two more and senior Connor Shanahan kicked three field goals in the Cardinals’ 43-35 victory over Verona.
“We knew it would be a great football game down to the end,” Sun Prairie coach Brian Kaminski said. “I’m a little surprised by 43-35. The last couple years it’s been 13-9, it seems like … or lower-scoring than 43-35. But like we told the kids, ‘A win is a win. We’ll take them any way we can.’”
The Cardinals (4-1 overall, 4-1 Big Eight) won their fourth consecutive game and remained in pursuit of league leader Madison Memorial.
“We just got our swagger back,” Schauer said after Friday’s victory followed last week’s 49-0 rout of Janesville Craig. “We were trying to find that key. We wanted to make this team our own (after last year’s team advanced to the WIAA Division 1 state title game).”
The Cardinals gained more than 500 yards, led by a running game keyed by Schauer (150 yards rushing on 22 carries) and sophomore Jacob Hellenbrand (68 yards on nine attempts) and the passing attack led by Gilles (217 yards passing) and senior receivers Cooper Nelson (100 yards on seven catches) and Arrie Davis (100 yards on six receptions).
“(The offensive line) did an amazing job, always opening holes for me,” Schauer said. “Last week, (the line did) an amazing job. This week, they really busted it out. It was a total offensive team effort. … It was a great offensive game all-around.”
The Wildcats (3-2, 3-2) showed off their own weapons. Sophomore Jackson Acker scored two touchdowns, junior quarterback Adam Bekx threw a touchdown pass and junior Haakon Anderson caught nine passes and ran for a score.
Verona coach Dave Richardson said he expected a high-scoring game.
“We have been cobbling together our defense the last couple weeks,” Richardson said. “We have a lot of injuries and illness. I felt we’d have to outscore them tonight. We had a chance to do it.”
Sun Prairie erased a 21-16 deficit with two rushing touchdowns by Schauer in the final 2 minutes, 19 seconds of the first half.
Schauer scored on a 5-yard run, giving the Cardinals a 23-21 lead with 2:19 left in the second quarter. The 60-yard scoring drive was highlighted by Gilles’ 45-yard completion to Nelson, who was finally brought down at the Wildcats’ 25.
Then the Wildcats, facing fourth-and-1 at their own 44-yard line, decided to go for it, but a sneak by Bekx was stopped a yard short 1:15 before halftime.
Richardson said the Wildcats wanted to try to draw the Cardinals offside, but a miscommunication led to the ball being snapped and Verona coming up short.
The Cardinals scored in five plays, gaining a halftime cushion. That was a key sequence, Kaminski said.
“Their score before halftime was tough to take,” Richardson said.
Gilles’ 20-yard pass to senior Ethan Ackley moved the ball to the Verona 22. On second-and-10, Gilles lateraled to Nelson, who fired a 20-yard pass to Davis. That set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Schauer, giving Sun Prairie a 30-21 lead with 21.4 seconds left in the first half.
Verona had grabbed a 21-16 lead on junior running back Keegan Lindell’s 1-yard run with 3:42 left in the second quarter of the back-and-forth game.
In the third quarter, Sun Prairie stretched its lead to 33-21 on Shanahan’s 40-yard field goal with 6:54 left. Verona answered on Acker’s 5-yard touchdown run, cutting its deficit to 33-28 with 3:10 left in the third quarter. Earlier, Acker’s 100-yard kickoff return gave Verona a 14-9 lead in the first quarter.
Schauer’s 5-yard touchdown helped Sun Prairie open a 40-28 advantage with 11:53 left to play. But the Wildcats kept clawing, rallying within 40-35 on Anderson’s 4-yard scoring run with 5:36 remaining.
Shanahan booted a 20-yard field goal with 2:02 left, providing the final points.
“Anybody that paid admission to this thing tonight got their money’s worth and then some,” Kaminski said. “As a coach who prides himself on defense, I’m a little exhausted tonight. You can’t question our kids’ hearts … To be able to come out on top is unbelievable.”
Sun Prairie 9 21 3 10 — 43
Verona 14 7 7 7 — 35
SP — FG Shanahan 25
V — VanHandel 9 pass from Bekx (Garcia kick)
SP — Gilles 9 run (kick failed)
V — Acker 100 kickoff return (Garcia kick)
SP — Gilles 6 run (Shanahan kick)
V — Lindell 2 run (Garcia kick)
SP — Schauer 5 run (Shanahan kick)
SP — Schauer 2 run (Shanahan kick)
SP — FG Shanahan 40
V — Acker 5 run (Garcia kick)
SP — Schauer 5 run (Shanahan kick)
V — Anderson 4 run (Garcia kick)
SP — FG Shanahan 20
First downs — SP 24, V 15. Rushing (Att.-Yds.) — SP 42-282, V 24-91. Passing yards — SP 239, V 225. Passes (Comp.-Att.-Int.) — SP 14-28-0, V 20-31-2. Fumbles-lost — SP 1-0, V 0-0. Penalties-yards — SP 6-42, V 4-20.
Rushing: SP, Schauer 22-150. V, Lindell 10-29.
Passing: SP, Gilles 13-27-0-217. V, Bekx 20-31-2-225.
Receiving: SP, Nelson 7-100. V, Anderson 9-99.