Put an exclamation mark behind the title of Inland Empire League football champions for the Lewiston Bengals.
The Bengals captured the league like they played all season - in dominating fashion.
And make Lewiston quarterback Brad Rice the unanimous pick as the league’s most valuable player. The Bengal senior had a hand in all of Lewiston’s touchdowns in a telling 34-8 victory Friday over the Sandpoint Bulldogs at Bengals Field.
Rice threw three touchdown passes, caught a TD pass and returned an interception 69 yards in his first start in the secondary.
As it turned out, Lewiston didn’t have a close game in league. The Bengals humbled Post Falls earlier in the season 49-6, they followed that with a 42-13 victory over Lake City and last week they spanked Coeur d’Alene 40-13.
It’s no wonder that the coaches of the defending State A-1 Division II champion Madison Bobcats attended Friday’s game after a victory Thursday. It’s looking like another Lewiston-Madison showdown in the state championship game.
Second-ranked Lewiston, which closes out the regular season at home next Friday in a non-league game against Cheney, improved to 8-0 overall (4-0 in league). Sandpoint suffered its first loss, slipping to 7-1, 2-1.
The loss sets up an interesting finale next week when Post Falls (7-1, 2-1), a 28-14 winner over Coeur d’Alene on Friday, travels to Sandpoint. The winner joins Lewiston in the state playoffs, the loser packs its gear.
Give the Lewiston defense an assist on Rice’s MVP nomination. The Bengals did exactly what they had to against the other candidate for league MVP, Sandpoint running back Jeremy Thielbahr.
No team had come close to stopping the standout runner until Friday. Lewiston ran eight and seemingly as many as all 11 defenders at Thielbahr, limiting him to a season-low 80 yards on 26 carries. His previous low (167) came in the season opener against Bonners Ferry.
As has been their routine this season, the Bengals jumped on the Bulldogs early.
Lewiston took advantage of a punt return to the Sandpoint 24-yard line. Three plays later, Rice hit Mickey Hewitt on an 11-yard fade for a TD. The extra-point kick failed.
Rice got the first of two interceptions when he picked off a Brett Taylor pass at the Bengals 5.
Lewiston proceeded to march 95 yards in 11 plays, culminated by a Rice-to-Matt Squires 38-yard connection. Rice then found Rick McCrery in the deep left corner of the end zone for the two-point conversion and Lewiston led 14-0 with 54 seconds left in the first period.
Sandpoint appeared poised to stop the Bengals’ momentum. On fourth-and-5 from the Lewiston 26, Taylor hit Caleb Bowman on what was thought to be a touchdown. But the play was called back because of illegal motion. Lewiston took over on downs.
That’s when Lewiston coach Nick Menegas dug into his bag of offensive tricks. On third-and-9 from the Sandpoint 10, Rice pitched the ball to backup quarterback Sennet Pierce, who had changed his uniform number and lined up at halfback. Pierce then lobbed a 10-yard pass to Rice to extend Lewiston’s lead to 20-0 with 6:19 remaining before halftime.
The score would stand at halftime.
The Bengals stopped any hopes of a second-half comeback when Rice stepped in front of Bowman on a wide out pattern and returned the interception 69 yards. With the two-point conversion, Lewiston led 28-0 with 6:53 left in the third quarter.
Three minutes later, Lewiston added its final TD when Rice hit McCrery in the seam for 30 yards as the Bengals extended their lead to 34-0 with 3 minutes left.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Thielbahr plunged into the end zone from 1 yard out to give Sandpoint its lone TD.
Six minutes later, Sandpoint added a safety when Lewiston snapped the ball on an attempted punt out of the end zone.
Rice completed 12 of 23 passes for 208 yards. He rushed for 70 on 12 attempts. Lewiston finished with 341 total yards.
Lewiston 34, Sandpoint 8
Sandpoint 0 0 0 8 - 8
Lewiston 14 6 14 0 - 34 L-Hewitt 11 pass from Rice (kick failed) L-Squires 38 pass from Rice (McCrery pass from Rice) L-Rice 10 pass from Pierce (kick failed) L-Rice 69 interception return (Hewitt pass from Rice) L-McCrery 30 pass from Rice (kick failed) S-Thielbahr 1 run (kick failed) S-Safety, ball snapped out of end zone
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