WEST DES MOINES - Fort Dodge's Class 4A playoff game with eighth-ranked West Des Moines Valley here Wednesday wound up being far from a statistical mismatch.
The scoreboard, however, told a different story.
Despite standing toe-to-toe with the defending state champions from the line of scrimmage all night long, the Dodgers weren't able to capitalize on opportunities as the Tigers were making the most of theirs in a 56-13 victory on a warm, hazy evening inside Valley Stadium.
Fort Dodge bows out with a 3-7 overall record for the second consecutive season. At 8-2 and winners of six straight, the Tigers march on to face Johnston (6-4) back here on Monday for a spot in the quarterfinal round.
Quality trumped quantity last night in more ways than one. Even though they accrued more first downs, ran 25 extra plays from scrimmage and virtually equaled Valley yard for yard, head coach Matt Miller's squad fell victim to a slew of special-team mishaps as the Tigers made it look deceptively easy with a comfortable margin of victory over their old CIML rivals.
"When you get the chance to do something against an elite program like Valley, you have to execute," Miller said. "If you let those opportunities go by the wayside and don't take advantage of the few times they let their guard down, you throw any idea of keeping things close out the window. That's just the reality of the situation.
"When we made mistakes, it cost us dearly. When they made mistakes, we let them off the hook. That's the difference between a competitive ballgame and a lopsided one on the scoreboard, no matter what the final stats say at the end of the night."
While Valley was as efficient as ever in the first half, the Dodgers couldn't get out of their own way. Fort Dodge found itself trailing 21-0 at the end of the opening period despite surrendering just 46 yards of offense and gaining 83 of its own. The Tigers returned one punt for a 78-yard touchdown, another for 40 yards deep into Dodger territory, and partially blocked a third that set up a 1st-and-goal situation.
"Special teams just destroyed us in that first half," Miller said. "You can't give up (118 yards) in the first two punt returns, then have the third (punt) get tipped. They were constantly in short-field situations, which is the last thing you want to do on the road against the defending champs."
Fort Dodge again moved the ball through the air with ease. Junior quarterback Andrew Stover marched the Dodgers deep into Valley territory on their second possession, but they turned the ball over on downs.
FDSH then drove 80 yards on 13 plays to paydirt at the start of the second quarter, slicing the deficit to 21-7.
The Tigers responded with a TD drive of their own, but the Dodgers answered right back by sailing comfortably into the VHS side of the field before stalling on downs. A quick Tiger scoring strike on a screen pass right before the half then put the contest out of reach for good.
"We had the ball three times on their side of the field and only came up with seven points (in the first half)," Miller said. "You have to credit their defense for making plays when they needed to most."
Fort Dodge faced a 28-point deficit heading into the locker room despite out-gaining the Tigers from scrimmage, 196-158, picking up three more first downs and running 46 plays compared to Valley's 24.
The Dodgers' lone second-half touchdown came on a 14-yard pass from Stover to senior Tyler Vaughn midway through the fourth period. Stover had 246 yards, wrapping up an unprecedented junior campaign that found him four yards above the 2,000 mark.
Stover threw for 933 yards in his final four games. Wednesday was his fifth 200-plus yard effort of the season. His 2,004 yards were the third-most ever at FDSH, behind only Randy Reiners (2,235 yards in 1994) and Sam Edwards (2,141 last year).
Vaughn caught six passes for 66 yards. He finished with 67 receptions this season - 19 more than any other Dodger in school history - and 78 in his career, also a school record. Vaughn became just the third 1,000-yard receiver ever at FDSH.
Senior Tommy Halligan passed Alonzo Clayton (69) and moved into second for career receptions (72) after his 5-catch, 72-yard performance last night. Sophomore Spencer Barber also made five grabs for 71 yards.
"I want to thank our seniors and give all of our kids a collective pat on the back," Miller said. "I really think our football team played its best ball of the season over the final three games, no matter what the scoreboard says. Our Homecoming loss (to Johnston) was a low point, and these guys could've just packed it in and called it a year. Instead, they picked themselves up and kept working hard.
"I appreciate their effort. Obviously Tyler and Tommy did great things statistically, and they were outstanding leaders as well. Andrew put up some impressive numbers. But it was all part of the process; it's not like these kids were in it for themselves, trying to pad their numbers.
"A lot of football, like life, is how you face adversity. We didn't do a good job with that early, but by the end of the year, I think this group was much more mature and handled itself with more class and togetherness through the ups and downs."
Wednesday's win marked the 300th of Valley head coach Gary Swenson's career. There was a brief ceremony following the contest at midfield, as the fans and both squads recognized Swenson's achievement.
Fort Dodge will lose eight senior starters to graduation: Vaughn (SE-DB-P-K), Halligan (HB-LB), Michael Carlson (OL), Connor Hubbard (OL), Kyle Johnson (OL), Keegan Jones (WB-CB), Adrean Johnson (LB) and Austin Anderson (LB). Wesley Castro (WB-CB), Anthony Credit (LB) and Gavin Thomas (NG) were regulars who were out with injuries. Nate Howard, Jordan Narber, Michael Price, Tyler Simpson, Joel Dornath, Jacob Deuel and Nick Howard were the other seniors on the roster.
The Dodgers have now been eliminated by Valley three times in the postseason since 2005. Last night marked Fort Dodge's fifth straight playoff appearance under the current format.