Mason Kuehner got the official word as Nazareth Area High School’s football team left the locker room on Friday night.
He was the starting quarterback.
The senior, who has drawn plenty of accolades as a wideout and defensive back in his career, was unfazed.
“It’s nothing new to me,” Kuehner said. “I played quarterback my whole life up until sophomore year. The seniors, I didn’t want to let them down, especially on senior night. I wanted to make sure I could lead this group, be vocal with everything, drive down the field every possession I got and go score.”
Kuehner was excellent, generating a combined 224 yards on the ground and through the air, and Nazareth, ranked No. 2 by lehighvalleylive.com, routed visiting Easton 40-0 in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference South Division finale for both schools at Andrew S. Leh Stadium.
It’s the first time Nazareth has shut out Easton, and 40 points is the program’s largest margin of victory in the series by far. The Blue Eagles (9-1 overall, 7-1 division) have beaten the Red Rovers six straight times, their longest winning streak in the rivalry.
Sophomore quarterback Peyton Falzone, who led the division in passing through nine games, was injured in last week’s win over Bethlehem Catholic. Falzone warmed up on Friday night but was ultimately held out of action.
“We had to operate differently tonight, obviously. Peyton was banged-up pretty bad in that last game and really didn’t practice much this week,” said Nazareth coach Tom Falzone, Peyton’s father. “We had these [packages for Kuehner] throughout the course of the year. You always practice that stuff. You hope you could save those things for different times. But, this is the time we had to do it.”
Blue Eagles sophomore Marquez Wimberly took the opening kickoff more than 50 yards to the Easton 29. Kuehner’s first pass of the evening was a dime to junior Caleb Newsome, who ran a fade from the slot for a 24-yard touchdown.
“Obviously, I knew my legs were going to be a big factor. To be able to drop back and hit Caleb deep – great route by him – it definitely settled me down a little bit to get the first points on the board,” Kuehner said. “It helped me for the rest of the game.”
The Blue Eagles had a touchdown wiped out because of a block in the back penalty in the closing moments of the first quarter. The hosts faced a first-and-goal from the 25 later in that series and ultimately settled for a 31-yard field goal by senior Nathan Baker to take a 10-0 lead with 10:37 left in the opening half.
Easton (3-7, 1-7) used a 38-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Cole Ordway to junior wide receiver Jasir Frutchey to get into Nazareth territory on the Rovers’ next possession. Ordway, however, was later picked off by Newsome at the Blue Eagles’ 1 to keep the visitors scoreless.
The series that followed by Nazareth was as ugly as it was effective. The hosts were flagged for three penalties and, despite that, went 90 yards for the game’s second touchdown. Senior tailback Jed Bendekovits scampered 52 yards across midfield. Four plays later, Kuehner converted a second-and-17 with a 24-yard run.
“Mason is an outstanding athlete; we all know that,” Tom Falzone said. “He’s a Division I talent. We put the ball in his hands and let him do the things he does back there. He made huge plays for us tonight and was leading this team throughout senior night.”
Wimberly capped the series with a 10-yard touchdown, pushing the lead to 17-0 with 5:38 to play before the break.
The Rovers reached the Nazareth 30 on their next drive, but senior linebacker Joseph Guiliano intercepted a pass and returned it to Easton’s 24. Baker added a 22-yard field goal as time expired to give his team a 20-0 advantage at halftime.
Nazareth leaned on its ground game during a 66-yard scoring drive that took 5 minutes and 4 seconds off the clock in the third quarter. Bendekovits punched a 5-yard run across the goal line as the lead increased to 27-0.
A 7-yard scoring run by Kuehner and a 24-yard TD from Bendekovits initiated the mercy rule at 40-0 with 7:50 remaining in the final period.
The Blue Eagles rushed for 381 yards. Kuehner took 18 carries for 154 yards, and Bendekovits had 16 carries for 136 yards.
“They did an absolutely amazing job,” Kuehner said about his offensive line. “The fact that we were able to run the ball every single play, they were creating big holes. We were able to run the read option very well. I was able to pick up yards around the outside. Jed was able to pick up yards right up the middle. It was a great team effort.”
“It was amazing,” Bendekovits added. “The big uglies are getting doughnuts tomorrow. They earned it. It’s huge to be able to run the ball like that.”
Kuehner completed 9 of 12 passes for 70 yards. The Blue Eagles defense limited Easton to 173 yards of total offense.
Nazareth’s comfortable victory was a departure from the team’s 17-14 nailbiter against Bethlehem Catholic in Week 9.
“Last week, we got out-physicaled,” Tom Falzone said. “I said if we come out like that again, Easton plays the same style, they could punch us right in the mouth, too. But we stepped up upfront.”
“It was definitely a wakeup call,” Bendekovits said. “Not running the ball last week, we had to fix something. We definitely did, and we showed that.”
Easton, which leads the all-time series with Nazareth 28-10, has missed the district tournament for the second straight season. The Rovers have 27 days to prepare for their traditional rivalry clash with Phillipsburg on Thanksgiving.
The Blue Eagles’ victory came despite 11 penalties for 97 yards, most of which came in the first half.
“That’s got to get better,” Falzone said. “That’s plagued us throughout the year.”
Nazareth sealed the second seed in the Districts 11/4/2 Class 6A subregional tournament. As of Saturday morning, the Blue Eagles’ seventh-seeded opponent would be District 2′s Wilkes-Barre Area (6-4).
“We needed a big win going into the playoffs. Last week against Beca wasn’t really a dominant win like we expected,” Kuehner said. “We wanted a dominant win going into the playoffs, which is exactly what this is. It’s a huge confidence booster. Everybody is super amped up, super ready to go. Now, we know we have what it takes to go all the way.”
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Kyle Craig may be reached at [email protected].