MIDDLETON — Verona football coach Dave Richardson was not certain how his team would respond after an emotional week spent mourning the deaths of two former players.
Richardson knew no book could tell him exactly what to say to his student-athletes.
“It was a long week,” he said. “It was a sad week.”
He just wanted the Wildcats to play with all their might against host Middleton on Friday night and remember Shay Watson, who was shot and killed Sunday in Fitchburg, and 2014 Verona graduate Grant Langer, a firefighter in Tennessee who recently passed away, Richardson said. Watson, who planned to attend Madison West as a senior this fall, played football for Verona the past two years.
The Wildcats responded with a huge performance. Verona unleashed a diversified offense that recorded explosive play after explosive play in a 61-35 Big Eight Conference victory at Breitenbach Stadium. The Wildcats (2-0 overall, 2-0 Big Eight), leading 27-20 at halftime, pulled away from the Cardinals (1-1, 1-1) with 20 unanswered points after the break.
“I’m really glad the kids kind of fought through it,” Richardson said. “Each day got a little better. Each day we talked about it. Each day we pointed to tonight and how you want to remember some great kids who played for us: Let’s remember this night. I think that we will.”
Junior running backs Jackson Acker and Graham Stier and senior Haakon Anderson led a rushing attack for Verona (2-0 overall, 2-0 Big Eight) that amassed 607 yards, with University of Wisconsin recruit Acker scoring three touchdowns and Stier and Anderson two apiece.
Acker rushed for 243 yards on 14 carries, including touchdown runs of 14, 87 and 65 yards. Stier had 206 yards rushing, including TD runs of 86 and 70 yards, and Anderson had 159 yards rushing, with scoring runs of 54 and 33 yards.
“We came together,” Acker said. “We are a family. It was tough, but we did it.”
The Wildcats piled up 734 yards in total offense, with senior quarterback Adam Bekx throwing two touchdown passes to senior receiver Aubrey Dawkins.
“We have a lot of weapons all over the field,” Dawkins said. “There is nobody you can double. Everyone has a chance to break open a run whenever they touch the ball.”
The Wildcats were playing their first game since Watson died. Dawkins changed his uniform from No. 1 to No. 2 in memory of his longtime friend and former teammate, Watson, who wore No. 2.
“He meant a lot to me,” said Dawkins, who knew Watson since second grade. “I was playing for him. I knew he was watching me from above.”
Dawkins scored on a 41-yard reception and put the Wildcats ahead 13-0 in the first quarter. Dawkins’ 24-yard third-quarter touchdown catch gave Verona a 41-20 lead.
The Wildcats’ offense overshadowed a strong offensive performance by Middleton and senior running back Kallion Buckner, who rushed for two touchdowns and scored on a 40-yard screen pass from senior quarterback Drew Teff in the first half.
“It was very tough (to stop Verona) when they have three guys that run that well and they get to the second level with no one touching them,” Middleton coach Jason Pertzborn said. “You try to fill the box and Dawkins runs well and the quarterback is on the money all the time.”
Acker started the wild first half of scoring with a 14-yard touchdown run with 9 minutes, 39 seconds left in the first quarter.
Acker had two first-half touchdown runs — the second was an 87-yard scamper that gave the Wildcats a 27-14 lead with 2:35 left in the first half.
Middleton had rallied behind the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Buckner. Buckner culminated a 17-play, 78-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run that rallied the Cardinals within 13-7.
Verona answered immediately. Anderson — who had 122 yards rushing on five carries in the first half — raced 54 yards on an inside reverse for a touchdown with 9:17 left in the second quarter.
Buckner then scored on a 2-yard run 2:56 before halftime to finish a 13-play, 80-yard drive — bringing Middleton within 20-14.
But Acker, who had 132 yards rushing on seven carries in the first half, erupted for his 87-yard touchdown run on the next play from scrimmage.
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The Cardinals responded with Teff’s pass to Buckner, who covered 40 yards for a touchdown. That cut Verona’s lead to 27-20 with 1:09 left in the second quarter.
Verona 13 14 14 20 — 61
Middleton 0 20 0 15 — 35
V — Acker 14 run (Armstrong kick), 9:39
V — Dawkins 41 pass from Bekx (kick failed), 6:25
M — Buckner 2 run (Pertzborn kick), 11:15
V — Anderson 54 run (kick failed), 9:17
M — Buckner 2 run (kick failed), 2:56
V — Acker 87 run (Armstrong kick), 2:33
M — Buckner 40 pass from Teff (Pertzborn kick), 1:04
V — Anderson 33 run (Armstrong kick), 9:59
V — Dawkins 24 pass from Bekx (kick failed), 3:17
V — Stier 86 run (Armstrong kick), 10:01
M — Teff 1 run (Buckner run), 8:53
V — Acker 65 run (kick failed), 8:38
V — Stier 70 run (Armstrong kick), 4:42
M — Tucker 1 run (Pertzborn kick), :12.
First downs — V 22, M 27. Rushes-yards — V 30-607, M 54-246. Comp-Att-Int — V 6-12-0, M 16-31-1. Passing yards — V 127, M 229. Fumbles-Lost — V 0-0, MID 3-0. Penalties-Yards — V 9-100, M 9-55.
RUSHING: V, Acker 14-243, Stier 8-206, Anderson 7-159. M, Buckner 30-142. PASSING: V, Bekx 6-11-127-0. M, Teff 14-28-208-1. RECEIVING: V, Dawkins 3-74. M, Patterson 6-102.