It took a quarter for the Neuqua Valley offense to get out of its own way. Then the Wildcats were off and running.
And running, and running, and running.
Neuqua Valley rushed for 350 yards on 59 attempts, while its defense limited South Elgin to 53 rushing yards and defended the pass well enough to notch a 42-20 road victory in the Upstate Eight Valley opener for both teams Saturday.
Tailback Joey Rhattigan was the focus of the attack. The senior carried 27 times for 174 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also returned a third-quarter kickoff 85 yards for another score to help the Wildcats improve to 3-0 for the first time in school history.
"I couldn't have pictured a better start," said Rhattigan, who in 3 victories has gained 589 yards and scored 9 touchdowns. "I think this team is different than most teams that have come through Neuqua, and we're out here to prove that."
South Elgin (1-2, 0-1), playing for the second straight week without starting tailback Jeff Broger due to a strained hamstring, was forced to air it out. The Storm passed for 290 yards and 3 touchdowns, but they were shut out in the first half due to a combination of bad field position and a stingy Neuqua defense.
"You have to be able to run the ball a little bit, too," South Elgin coach Dale Schabert said. "They came off their blitz package and were dropping eight. They are so pressure happy I thought we'd have a chance to do some things, but they dropped a lot of kids and took the middle of the field away. So that's something we'll have to address."
An interception, a lost fumble and a Rhattigan touchdown run negated by a block-in-the-back penalty kept the Wildcats spinning their wheels offensively in the first quarter.
"Any team does that and you're going to have a hard time scoring," Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said of the miscues. "We were stopping ourselves."
Once the Wildcats cut out the mistakes, their size advantage in the trenches became a determining factor. Rhattigan capped a 55-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge for the game's first touchdown with 6:58 left in the second quarter. His second 1-yard touchdown run with 22 seconds remaining before halftime finished off a 35-yard drive that followed a short South Elgin punt into the wind.
Neuqua Valley scored twice more in the third quarter to take a 28-0 lead. Junior fullback TJ Scruggs found the end zone on a 17-yard run. Following a blocked punt by Neuqua's Joshua Prescher at the South Elgin 20-yard line, Rhattigan hit pay dirt for the third time with an 11-yard run with 7:15 left in the third quarter.
South Elgin scored three times in the final 16:41. Quarterback Robert Cuda threw an 11-yard scored to Jordyn Cruz, and he spotted Tyler Christensen for a 57-yard strike. Cuda completed 19 of 34 attempts for 253 yards and 2 touchdowns and was intercepted once. However, the lack of a running game made the Storm susceptible to Neuqua's cover scheme.
"We came in thinking we were going to shut down the run and they would have to pass it," said Neuqua Valley senior Sam Norgaard, who picked off a Cuda pass in the first quarter. "And we shut that down as well."