MEDIAPOLIS — Twenty seconds in, the Cardinal High School football team was watching Mediapolis' Kadin Salek run for a long touchdown.
And the Comets' hopes of perhaps ascending a new ladder in the evolution of their program went with him.
Salek's 80-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game set the tone, and the Bulldogs also scored on a fumble recovery and safety in a commanding 44-8 Class 1A District 6 win Friday.
"It's a different level of competition, and we know that. They have a ton of kids out for football and they know how to play," Cardinal coach Landon Miller said. "They were bigger in any facet, and that's hard. We hoped to scheme up some things to keep it tight and see what we could do in the fourth.
"We just aren't on a level like that yet. It takes time."
Cardinal (3-2, 1-1 district), gave up over 250 yards rushing in the first half, but the biggest turning point came trailing by two touchdowns. With the ball at the Bulldogs 7, quarterback Blaine Bryant fumbled on a sack, and Levi Arnold scooped it up and went 83 yards for a touchdown to give Mediapolis (4-1, 3-0) control of the game.
"Those big turnovers are tough. They're athletic and brought pressure and we couldn't handle it," Miller said. "That's the big turning point in high school. We've been able to ... against Wayne, Louisa-Muscatine, we were able to create that momentum, and tonight we couldn't do it."
The Bulldogs scored three touchdowns in eight minutes for a 35-0 halftime lead.
Still, the Comets had Mediapolis quarterback Regan Thornburg out of sync early before threw a pair of 38-yard touchdown passes in the second quarter; the latter came on fourth-and-14 as he draped the ball over double coverage to Cole Lipper.
The running game, however, set up the Bulldogs' passing attack. Anthony Isley rushed for 137 yards and Salek added 130. Mediapolis had nine running plays longer than 10 yards.
"What beat us tonight was some big plays on the edge," Miller said. "We just couldn't get there. That comes down to being strong and tough, and them blocking well and knowing their scheme. We knew they'd run outside, try to throw it downfield and run some zone things inside. We stopped two of those things."
Cardinal's Maddux Jones, who got injured in the Comets' loss to Southwest Valley Aug. 28, led the Comets' lone scoring drive, as he threw a crossing pass to Bryant for a 32-yard touchdown on third-and-long with just over two minutes left.
The Comets suffered some bumps and bruises against the more physical Bulldogs, but Miller likes the progress his team is making despite three turnovers and a game that was lopsided in just about every fashion.
"We've worked hard all year on mentally and physically overcoming some of those things," Miller said. "There's three tiers in Iowa football. There is the tier where you're not very good, and that's where we were. Then, there is the tier where you can be not-very-good teams, but you're not close athletically.
"Then there's that Mediapolis tier. It's a different level. We're trying to knock that door down, but it's going to take more time."
Cardinal hosts Van Buren County next week, while Mediapolis visits Sigourney-Keota for what will likely be the district championship for the second year in a row.
First downs 6 13
Rushing-yards 16-20 37-285
Passing yards 116 83
Comp-Att-Int 10-17-1 3-10-0
Total yards 136 368
Punts-avg. 4-35.8 0-0.0
Fumbles-lost 3-3 0-0
Penalties-yards 5-39 11-70
Score by quarters
Card 0 0 0 8 — 8
M 14 21 9 0 — 44
M—Kadin Salek 80 run (Drew Zurmuehlen kick)
M—Anthony Isley 8 run (Zurmuehlen kick)
M—Levi Arnold 83 fumble recovery (Zurmuehlen kick)
M—Zurmuehlen 38 pass from Regan Thornburg (Zurmuehlen kick)
M—Cole Lipper 38 pass from Thornburg (Zurmuehlen kick)
M—Safety, fumbled snap out of end zone
M—Isley 32 run (Zurmuehlen kick)
C—Blaine Bryant 32 pass from Maddux Jones (Jones run)
RUSHING: Cardinal — Blaine Bryant 7-(minus 20), Griffin Greiner 1-2, Maddux Jones 1-3, Ian Liles 6-37, Keegan Atkinson 1-(minus 2). Mediapolis — Anthony Isley 20-137, Kadin Salek 5-130, Regan Thornburg 6-36, William Davis 1-0, Lucas Wagenbach 1-(minus 4), Jackson Hutcheson 2-(minus 9), Benjamin Wolter 2-(minus 5).
PASSING: Cardinal — Bryant 8-14-1-76, Jones 2-3-0-40. Mediapolis — Thornburg 3-10-0-83.
RECEIVING: Cardinal — Greiner 3-37, Landon Becker 4-38, Christian Bowman 2-9, Bryant 1-32. Mediapolis — Cole Lipper 2-45, Drew Zurmuehlen 1-38.