LONGVIEW — The Columbia River Chieftains were leading, but they were struggling a bit in the third quarter Thursday night.
Then Travon Santiago came up with the trifecta for the River defense: A sack. A forced fumble. A recovery.
Three plays later, the Chieftains were in the end zone, got a cushion, and they were on their way on opening night.
Garrett McKee threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and the Chieftains pulled away from R.A. Long for a 38-14 victory at Memorial Stadium.
“I just wanted to lock in,” said Santiago, a linebacker. “I wanted everyone to focus. Our defensive line stepped up, and I just wanted to make some plays for my squad. I wanted to win this game.”
Santiago recovered the fumble he created and returned the ball to the R.A. Long 7-yard line. Three plays later, McKee found Koben Jamison on a 6-yard TD pass, giving the Chieftains a 28-14 lead late in the third quarter.
Up until then, the Chieftains had a turnover and three punts with no first downs in the first four possessions of the second half.
Santiago struck, and the Chieftains dominated the rest of the night.
“It’s definitely a relief,” McKee said of his first varsity start at quarterback. “There were a lot of nerves going into this game. Didn’t know what was going to happen. We made a couple mistakes, but overall, the play of our offensive line and our defense was good.”
Defensive lineman Jacob Reitmeier said the Chieftains made a few adjustments after giving up 278 first-half yards.
“We were physically stronger than them, but we needed to think better against them,” he said.
The plan, he said, seems simple enough.
“Defense needs to make sure we slow their offense and give us the fuel to accelerate our offense,” Reitmeier said.
That’s exactly what the Chieftains did in that second half, shutting out the Lumberjacks in the final two quarters.
River opened the season in fine form with a nine-play, 64-yard touchdown drive after receiving the opening kickoff. Santiago, also a running back, scored on a 2-yard run to make it 7-0.
R.A. Long would get a safety on a special teams miscue by the Chieftains, then took an 8-7 lead in the third quarter on a 69-yard pass from Owen Bertram to Gunnar Blix.
The Chieftains answered, with Dakota Mason hauling in a 24-yard TD pass from McKee.
Then it was Bertram to Blix again for R.A. Long, tying the game at 14 with 1:29 left in the first half.
Plenty of time for River, though. The Chieftains went 80 yards in 1:25, with McKee keeping it for a 13-yard TD run with 4 seconds on the clock.
Ryder Waite would add a fourth-quarter TD run for River, and McKee capped the scoring with a 22-yard field goal.
“There’s definitely room for improvement,” Santiago said.
But it’s a win.
“We’ve got to get better but hopefully we can come back (next) Friday and be 2-0,” McKee said.
COLUMBIA RIVER 38, R.A. LONG 14
Col. River 7 14 7 10—38
R.A. Long 2 12 0 0—14
CR — Travon Santiago 2 run (Garrett McKee kick)
RAL — Safety, River snap over punter’s head, into end zone
RAL — Gunnar Blix 69 pass from Owen Bertram (pass failed)
CR — Dakota Mason 24 pass from McKee (McKee kick)
RAL — Blix 15 pass from Bertram (kick failed)/
CR — McKee 13 run (McKee kick)
CR — Koben Jamison 6 pass from McKee (McKee kick)
CR — Ryder Waite 16 run (McKee kick)
CR — McKee 22 FG
RUSHING — Columbia River, Santiago 10-96, McKee 10-45, Ryder Waite 8-91, Hunter Pearson 11-56, Nathan Kunz 1-3, Team 1-(minus 23). R.A. Long, Blix 7-20, Riley Opgrande 9-104, Justin Holmdahl 6-49, Bertram 8-(minus 21), Parver Reeves 2-7, Team 1-(minus 29).
PASSING — Columbia River, McKee 14-27-2-111. R.A. Long, Bertram 12-36-1-193.
RECEIVING — Columbia River, Mason 5-66 Blake Duhamel 2-25, Alex McGarry 4-15, Isaiah James 1-3, Jamison 1-6, Nahiku Lidstone 1-(minus 4). R.A. Long, Opgrande 5-56, Mason Nickerson 1-1, Blix 3-100, Ethan Sterkel 2-30, Hunter Jones 1-6.