Omaha Gross pulled out a 21-14 win over Elkhorn at Bryan Stadium on Thursday night to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2008.
Here are five thoughts on the ground-and-pound game.
Game Ball to Owen Brennan
Omaha Gross spent the entire game playing from behind or in a tie — up until the last five minutes when senior linebacker Owen Brennan decided to take over the game on both ends.
First, on offense, with the game tied at 14-all, Gross faced a third-and-4 from the Elkhorn 37-yard line. Cougar quarterback Colby Duncan handed the ball off the Brennan and the senior fullback initially started to run right. A defender was waiting for him, but Brennan absorbed the contact, planted his feet and reversed field. He ran around the left end, bounced off two more tackles then sprinted straight up the hash marks to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
On 3rd-and-4, Owen Brennan broke a tackle and sprinted downfield for a 37-yard go-ahead TD.
Omaha Gross 21, Elkhorn 14, 4:06 4Q. #nebpreps pic.twitter.com/WGLdlrHbkT
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) September 9, 2022
Brennan only touched the ball twice on offense. On his first carry, he lost his footing almost as soon as he got the ball and only picked up 3 yards. He showed terrific balance on his second carry, however, and gave the Cougars their first led with 4:06 remaining.
Brennan does most of his damage on the defensive end, and on Elkhorn’s first play after the go-ahead touchdown, Brennan tackled the Elkhorn ball-handler for a loss of 2, putting them behind the sticks immediately. Two plays later, he teamed up with Tommy Gilbert to take down Elkhorn quarterback Connor Hunt after a gain of just 2, setting up a fourth-and-5 with just over two minutes remaining.
Elkhorn converted the fourth down, then moved the chains twice more to move into Elkhorn territory with the clock ticking. The second conversion, which again came on fourth down and required a measurement, gave the Antlers the ball a the Gross 39 with 34 seconds remaining.
On first down, Brennan broke up Hunt’s pass. Two more incomplete passes set the Antlers up with one last chance on fourth-and-10 with 17 seconds remaining. On the snap, Brennan dropped back into coverage in the middle of the field. He initially picked up tight end Tanner Houck, Hunt’s most-targeted receiver, but then made a great read to peel off and knock down the pass intended for Andrew Salvatore up the middle.
Owen Brennan with the fourth-down pass breakup to seal the victory after scoring the go-ahead TD.
Omaha Gross 21, Elkhorn 14, final. #nebpreps pic.twitter.com/DhJYtfBlza
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) September 9, 2022
Gross closed out the game in victory formation thanks to Brennan’s two-way play.
KJ Schenck is a Workhorse
As a team, Omaha Gross ran 34 plays on Friday night. Elkhorn senior running back KJ Schenck logged 35 touches by himself, including 34 carries.
He racked up 143 yards on the ground with a long run of 22 yards. Every other carry went for single-digit yards as he had to grind out each touch against a big and physical front line for the Cougars and rarely found much room to run. He also scored Elkhorn’s two touchdowns, both of which came on third down.
The Antlers will go as far as Schenk takes them, and he appears strong enough to carry them a long way despite the loss on Thursday.
Garcia the Game-breaker
Whereas Schenck had to grind out every yard he gained, Omaha Gross senior running back Jake Garcia showed off seem real explosiveness. He ran the ball 16 times for 147 yards and a touchdown with the bulk of that yardage coming in the second half.
Gross only got two possessions in the first half, and one of them was a three-and-out. Garcia ran the ball eight times for 37 yards, though he did score the Cougars’ touchdown.
Garcia found a bit more room to run in the second half. He got the same number of carries but turned them into 110 yards. Three of his runs went for double-digit yards including on for 59 yards and another for 18, and on those two carries he made at least eight different Elkhorn defenders miss.
The 59-yard run set up Gross’ second touchdown, a 3-yard run by Gilbert. After the 18-yard run on the following Gross drive — which put the Cougars near midfield — Garcia went down with a cramp, and the drive immediately stalled with him off the field, showing his importance to the team.
Garcia opened the season with a monster game against Beatrice, running the ball 14 times for 294 yards and three touchdowns. That included a 74-yard run.Garcia has the elusiveness to avoid defenders in traffic and the breakaway speed to make a house call at any point.
Old School Antlers
Elkhorn has a big front line led by Minnesota State commit Aidan Betz, and the Antlers love to run behind it. They keep it old school, rolling out two tight ends, a fullback and a halfback on most plays and running it down the defense’s throat.
As mentioned above, opponents get a steady dose of KJ Schenck, but Elkhorn also mixes in a few fullback dives and a quarterback run every now and then, and then they look to catch the defense off balance with an occasional throw downfield to a tight end or underneath to a back.
Elkhorn dominated in time of possession, out-snapping the Cougars two to one. Elkhorn’s first four drives included 13 plays, 11 plays, 10 plays and nine plays.
However, when they fell behind with four minutes to go, the Antlers struggled to move the ball quickly, and passing became much more difficult as the defense knew Elkhorn was running out of time. After completing 10 of his first 12 passes, Hunt missed on six of his last seven including four straight on the final drive.
The margin for error is small when a team lacks big-play ability, and that bit the Antlers on Thursday.
Omaha Gross is stout up front, and senior lineman Sal Nacarelli caught my eye on Thursday night. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds, the team’s starting left guard showed off both power and mobility, pancaking a defender in front of him one play then pulling on the next. He’s a big part of the team’s rushing success through three weeks.
He also showed off impressive range on the other side of the ball. Playing defensive end, I heard his name plenty on Thursday night. He recorded at least a couple of tackles for loss, and he also showed off relentless pursuit with a few downfield tackles when the Antlers got to the second level.
Omaha Gross hasn’t finished above .500 since winning the Class B state championship in 2012, but with players like Nacarelli, Garcia and Brennan leading the way, they’ve got a chance to snap that streak and make a run come the postseason. The Cougars have another big one next week, however, as they head to Blair.
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.