Morton survived Pumpkin Festival weekend and kept its perfect football season alive Friday.
“The Pumpkin Festival can be a distraction,” Potters coach Tim Brilley said after Morton beat Pekin 54-35 on a warm, humid night at Memorial Stadium that saw the Mid-Illini Conference teams combine for 1,124 yards in total offense.
Morton quarterback Nolan Donald didn’t act distracted by his hometown’s annual mid-September festival. The speedy senior rushed for a career-best 331 yards on 16 carries — an average of 20.7 yards per carry — while running for four touchdowns and throwing for another.
Brilley wasn’t only impressed by the converted running back’s rushing.
“I thought Nolan threw the ball well,” he said, even though Donald’s passing statistics weren’t nearly as impressive as his rushing numbers. He was 4-of-9 through the air for 50 yards.
“We just ran our normal offense. Our linemen did a great job opening holes,” said Donald, who has drawn interest as a running back from Butler, Valparaiso and Drake.
Jarrett Crider caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Donald and he also ran for two touchdowns while gaining 91 yards on six rushes.
It didn’t take Morton (4-0, 2-0) very long to score once it had the ball. Four of the Potters’ first six touchdowns came on one-play drives, and Donald’s 93-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter was on the third play of a drive.
“We missed too many tackles. We didn’t execute on defense,” said Pekin coach Doug Nutter. “On a lot of their touchdown runs, one or two of our guys bounced off them. You can’t do that with good runners.”
Morton had 625 yards in total offense. Pekin (1-3, 0-2) had a more-than-respectable 499 yards, but that couldn’t prevent the Dragons from losing their third straight.
Pekin quarterback Nathan Righi ran for a touchdown and passed for two more while completing 12-of-27 passes for 147 yards.
Gabe Holtke (three carries, 102 yards) and Devin Tovrea (seven carries, 98 yards) picked up big chunks of real estate on the ground for the Dragons.
The game was close at halftime, with Morton holding a 28-21 lead.
Pekin had a great opening drive, scoring on an 11-play, 72-yard march on a 3-yard run by Tovrea.
Back came Morton. Donald ran 55 yards for a touchdown on the Potters’ second play from scrimmage.
“I was surprised to see an open field in front of me. I put it in gear and took off,” Donald said.
Pekin grabbed a 14-7 lead when Righi scored on an 8-yard run with 1:25 left in the first quarter.
Donald’s touchdown pass to Crider on fourth down made it 14-14 early in the second quarter, then the Potters scored on 70-yard runs by Donald and Crider in between a 7-yard TD pass from Righi to Conner Rush.
Interceptions by Morton’s Braden Brown and Rush made sure nobody scored again before halftime.
Morton broke the game open by scoring on its first three possessions in the third quarter on a 58-yard run by Tag Grampp, a 52-yard run by Donald and a 2-yard run by Crider to make it 47-21.
An 80-yard run by Holtke in the third quarter and a 15-yard pass from Righi to Sebastian Hill in the fourth quarter gave Pekin its final two touchdowns.
“We gave up some big plays in the second half, but I thought our defense played well after we made an adjustment early in the game,” Brilley said. “Pekin was hurting us with reverses. We hadn’t seen them do that on film.
“That’s a good team (Pekin). They’re big and talented on both sides of the ball. This was an important win for us.”
It was especially important because No. 1-ranked and Mid-Illini Conference favorite Washington (4-0, 2-0) will be coming to Carper Field this week, when the Pumpkin Festival will be a distant memory.
Pekin has been outscored 103-49 in its two home games this season, both losses to undefeated teams. Sterling beat Pekin 49-14 in Week 2.
The Dragons will play host to Canton (1-3, 0-2) this week.
Steve Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.