Elkhorn struck first at Bennington in the showdown between two of Class B’s best on Friday night with a seven-play, 70-yard touchdown drive.
After a gain of 5 yards on first down, the Badgers got stuffed at the line for no gain on second down. Facing third and 5, senior quarterback Kale Bird dropped back to pass and quickly found an Antler defender heading his way. He escaped the pocket and ran toward the left sideline but couldn’t find anyone open. Instead of throwing it away, Bird tried to keep the play alive despite having a couple defenders bearing down on him.
Bird shrugged off one tackler then started running back toward the middle of the field with a defender hot on his trails. He turned back towards the sideline once again and circled around before finally getting rid of the ball. Senior receiver Trey Kenkel caught it and ran forward for a 16-yard gain, keeping a drive alive that ended in a 4-yard touchdown run by Bird. It was that kind of night for the quarterback, who racked up nearly 400 total yards through the air and on the ground to lead the Badgers to a 42-34 win over Elkhorn.
“He deserves everything he’s getting,” Bennington coach Kam Lenhart told Hail Varsity. “He has worked his butt off. He’s a student of the game and I’m not surprised with the plays he makes like that because that’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s a game-changer, he’s a playmaker, day in and day out. That’s why we love having him at the helm.”
Following Bird’s touchdown to tie it up at 7-7, Elkhorn star running back Aiden Young returned the kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown, giving the Antlers a 14-7 lead. The Badgers didn’t drop their heads, however, responding with a six-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to tie it up. Bird went 3-for-3 for 66 yards on the drive. Then Bennington scored two more touchdowns (including an 80-yard run by Bird) to pull ahead 28-14.
“We knew Elkhorn was going to be a physical team and they were going to be tough and they were going to punch us in the mouth,” Lenhart said. “We just had to respond and punch back. The fact of the matter is when they punched, we didn’t let it bring us down. We just said ‘OK, next play, all right.’ “Right here, right now’ is our motto for this team and we continued to go right back at them.”
An 80-yard kickoff return by Mikey Hart set the Antlers up with a short field and Elkhorn gave the ball to Young four straight times. On the fourth carry he punched it into the end zone, though the extra point clanged hard off the left upright.
Bennington took a 28-20 lead into halftime.
Bird made a rare mistake on Bennington’s opening drive of the second half, escaping pressure and taking a shot at the end zone that ended up in an interception by Hart, but the Badger defense had his back, eventually forcing a punt from Elkhorn. Gannon Gragert booted the ball into the end zone from his own 30-yard line for a touchback (a punt that traveled good 75 yards through the air) and the Badgers started from their own 20.
On first down, Dylan Mostek picked up 4 yards on the ground. On second down, Bird ran for 8 yards to move the chains. On the next play, the quarterback kept it again and ran for 12 more. Then Mostek broke through the Antler defense and ran it in from 56 yards out to put the Badgers up 35-20.
A short kick gave the Antlers great field position, but the defense stiffened up again and senior defensive back and wide receiver Ashten Schmaderer showed off his hands with a terrific interception near the end zone late in the third quarter.
A fumble ultimately ended a promising Badger drive, but not before Bennington chewed up just over four minutes of the fourth quarter clock. Elkhorn took advantage of the extra possession with a drive that included a 54-yard run by Young and ended in an 8-yard touchdown run by senior Isaac Robinson. The extra point failed again thanks to a bad snap and a low kick, making it 35-26 with 5:30 to go.
A failed onside kick gave the Badgers a short field and they kept it on the ground. Bennington picked up two first downs, then Elkhorn stuffed Bennington senior running back Tyler LeClair to set up third and 8, calling its last timeout with 2:25 remaining. When play resumed, Bennington gave the ball right back to LeClair and it looked like the Antlers again had him stuffed at the line, but he bounced off the would-be tackler and rumbled forward for a 20-yard touchdown to put the Badgers up 42-26.
LeClair finished with 14 carries for 73 yards and two touchdowns plus two receptions for 28 yards. He’s also one of Class B’s leading tacklers and delivered some punishing hits on Friday night.
“He’s phenomenal,” Lenhart said. “He’s a threat in the middle of the field, on defense he brings the pop as you saw sometimes and offensively, he just runs with his pads. He’s hard to bring down and that’s what helped seal the deal right there was him running with his pads.”
Elkhorn made one last push, moving the ball 65 yards in 63 seconds for a touchdown then converting the two-point conversion to make it a one-score game. However, the Badgers recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock in victory formation.
“It feels awesome,” Lenhart said. “We knew it was going to be a grind, we knew it was going to be a battle, but we’re excited with what we have, obviously.”
Bird finished 15-of-21 for 217 yards, one touchdown and one interception and he ran the ball 17 times for 180 yards and two more scores. Bird’s ball-handling in the read option had the Elkhorn defense guessing wrong all night as he faked the handoff to LeClair and kept it himself for some big gains around the edge.
“He is so dangerous,” Lenhart said. “He can run, pass, anything, hand the ball off — that’s what makes him awesome and makes it, for other teams, just flat-out difficult to guard. You don’t know what to expect from him and tonight he showed he can do it all. It’s awesome to have him on our side.”
Schmaderer was Bird’s favorite target, catching six passes for 73 yards in addition to his interception on defense. Cale Baca was on the receiving end of the lone passing touchdown and caught three balls in total for 39 yards. Mostek finished with 91 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
Young, who recently received a preferred walk-on offer from Nebraska, led the Antler offense with 20 carries for 173 yards and two touchdowns in addition to the 87-yard kickoff return touchdown. Gragert caught six passes from quarterback Grant Gutschow for 68 yards. Nebraska baseball commit Drew Christo didn’t see the ball come his way very often but caught one pass for 14 yards and made some big plays on defense.
The win for Bennington continues what has been a crazy year in Class B with all of the top teams in the class beating each other up. Hastings, the last remaining unbeaten team in Class B heading into the night, fell to Aurora on Friday.
Bennington, Hastings and Norris are all 6-1. Omaha Skutt, Elkhorn, Waverly, Plattsmouth and Aurora are all 5-2. Grand Island Northwest and McCook are both 4-2. There are just two weeks left in the regular season for Class B.
“Oh my gosh, it’s a battle,” Lenhart said. “Who’s going to show up week in and week out? We just have to continue to get better every week and we’re taking steps in the right path. We’ve just got to keep going.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.