The Keene High football team seemed to send a message to heavily-favored Exeter, finding the end zone on its opening drive Friday night.
But the Blue Hawks delivered a stronger message. They showed the host Blackbirds the difference between a rebuilding team coming off a one-win season, and an established program that made the playoffs eight years in a row before last season.
Exeter scored on each of its first five drives of the game to take a 35-7 lead at halftime, and ultimately finished with a dominant 49-7 win before a good-sized crowd in Keene’s home opener at Alumni Field.
“We got outmuscled, plain and simple,” first-year Keene Coach Linwood Patnode said. “We just faced a team that has been in their system with the same head coach [Bill Ball] for 25 years. They are in the weight room all offseason, and they have an offense that, although it is fairly simple, it is crisp and it is fast, and we don’t match up against teams like that right now.”
Keene (0-2) shot out of the gate with a long kickoff return by Cal Sault that got the Birds to the Exeter (2-0) 25-yard line. From there, a 12-yard run by Cole Masterson and a 12-yard pass from Tucker Brown to Clint Maleski got Keene down to the one-half yard line, and Brown snuck it across the goal line on the next play.
“Cal set us up for success with that,” Brown said. “The whole team just rallied off Cal’s first play.”
Unfortunately for the Birds, their offense stalled from there, and the Blue Hawks’ patented T formation offense went to work. Five different backs scored rushing touchdowns, which included three on runs of more than 50 yards. Jaedon Cliche led the way with two rushing touchdowns and one receiving TD, but it was fullback Derek Edmiston who found the end zone first.
Edmiston sprinted through a hole up the middle for a 53-yard touchdown on Exeter’s first drive. A missed PAT kept Keene in the lead, but Cliche stole the show and the game from the Birds the rest of the way.
After Keene came two yards short of converting a 3rd-and-19 and opted to punt from its own 46, Cliche took the first handoff, broke a tackle at the line and went down the field for an 83-yard touchdown. A successful two-point conversion made it 14-7.
On the next drive, Cliche caught a second-down pass from Ryan Grijalva in the flats and took off again, this time for a 78-yard score. He went on a 37-yard run to Keene’s 2-yard line on the next drive — setting up a two-yard score by Thomas Lamar — and on the following drive, after a 30-yard run by Edmiston, Cliche recorded his second running score from 13 yards out.
The two second-half scores came courtesy of a 38-yard run by Danny Doris in the third quarter and a 68-yarder by Owen Roth in the fourth. The Birds’ defense held the Blue Hawks to a three-and-out just twice all night.
Patnode said his defense — which starts seven sophomores this season with only four seniors on the team — needs more experience before it can face up to an offense like Exeter’s.
“You know the old saying on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ — ‘not quite ready for primetime?’ We’re not quite ready for prime time,” Patnode said. “You can’t stop that machine with seven sophomores and a group that’s been playing defense together for about four weeks.”
The long night on defense overshadowed a strong game by Keene’s special teams unit. In addition to Sault’s big opening return, Brown also delivered several strong punts. Brown booted three punts of over 30 yards, including one that went almost 50, and landed two inside Exeter’s 20-yard line.
“We worked on it quite a bit throughout the week,” Brown said. “That was probably one of the biggest flaws of the Dover game, and now we were just trying to limit returns as much as we could this week.”
When the Birds weren’t forced to punt, other problems beleaguered them. They turned the ball over three times, twice on botched handoffs recovered by the Blue Hawks, including one on the Exeter 15. They also failed to convert a fourth-and-inches at the Exeter 29.
However, Brown pointed out the offensive line held its own, as the athletic junior quarterback was sacked only once. But the players and coach agreed this was one of those nights that exemplified growing pains in the rebounding process.
“I think it’s a great learning experience, to see where we’re at with the harder competition in the state,” Brown said. “I think it just motivates us to work harder throughout the week and then play harder on game day.”
The Birds go back on the road next Friday night for a 6:30 kickoff against Nashua South.