It was senior night on Friday for the East Peoria football team, but three Pekin seniors stole the spotlight.
Quarterback Nathan Righi ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead the Dragons to a 28-13 Mid-Illini Conference victory in front of a chilled and sparse crowd at EastSide Centre.
Tied 7-7 going into the fourth quarter, Pekin (2-4, 3-5) piled up 21 points on a go-ahead touchdown by Dalton Selman, the first TD of his career, and Righi’s two scores.
Pekin ran for 358 of its 379 yards. Righi had 196 yards on 25 carries and Brayden Cruz had 109 yards on 15 attempts.
Righi, Selman and Cruz are seniors.
“We beat ourselves in the first half with missed opportunities and turnovers,” said Pekin coach Doug Nutter. “But I like how we played in the second half.”
East Peoria (1-7, 1-5) led 7-0 at halftime. The Raiders stopped the Dragons on the Pekin 4-yard line on the game’s opening drive, and scored after Mitch Ball made a leaping interception of a Righi pass on the first play of the second quarter.
Pekin also lost a fumble in second quarter.
East Peoria’s first-half touchdown — an 18-yard pass on fourth down from Tristen Westbay to Ross Smith — came at the end of a strange 10-play, 46-yard drive.
Four penalties contributed to the Raiders facing a third-down-and-44 predicament. They got out of the mess thanks in large part to a 42-yard pass from Westbay to Smith, and Pekin kept the drive going with a roughing the punter penalty.
The 6-foot-5 Smith caught Westbay’s TD pass in the end zone while two Pekin defenders collided.
Pekin recovered from that adversity and dominated the second half, but the Raiders impressed Nutter.
“They played hard,” he said.
East Peoria coach Erik Black agreed.
“We’ve been doing that all year,” he said. “That’s a testament to our coaches and the kids. We’re building something here. We just need to get over the hump.”
A fumble recovery by Pekin’s Sam Dunn early in the third quarter gave the Dragons the ball on the East Peoria 8-yard line and they scored on a 3-yard run by Cruz.
The Raiders were driving for a go-ahead score inside the Pekin 10-yard line when Eli Bennett (22 carries, 108 yards) suffered an ankle injury with 2:23 left in the third quarter, sending him to the sidelines for the rest of the game.
Pekin stopped East Peoria after Bennett was helped from the field, and drove 95 yards in six plays with Selman bullying into the end zone from 3 yards out on the second play of the fourth quarter.
“We put in that goal-line package (with Selman) this week,” Nutter said.
An interception by Pekin’s Justin Shockley set up a 48-yard TD run by Righi that put the Dragons in front 21-7.
East Peoria made things interesting when it scored on an 80-yard hook-and-ladder play. Westbay threw a short pass to Smith, who flipped a lateral to Carson Forbes.
“We put in that play this week,” Black said.
Pekin collected the ensuing kickoff and marched 85 yards in 15 plays, scoring on a 1-yard sneak by Righi.
Westbay finished 12-of-22 through the air for 177 yards. Smith had five catches for 120 yards.
Next for East Peoria is undefeated and Class 5A No. 1-ranked Washington.
“We have to get ready for the big boys,” Black told his team. “This is a game you want to play in. I’m sure we’ll give them a fight.”
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.