HIGHLAND -- The Marion Wildcats faced a tough task Friday night and figured to be the underdog against a strong Highland squad that hasn't lost a regular season game in quite a while.
And while the Wildcats showed they're definitely not scared of anybody, the Bulldogs were every bit as talented as projected and rolled to a 49-14 victory -- their 20th straight regular season victory.
Highland, which went 12-1 last season with the lone loss coming against Rochester in the Class 4A semifinals, is now 3-0. Marion now takes a 2-1 record into South Seven Conference play.
"No surprises," said Marion coach Kerry Martin. "They were as good as advertised. To beat a good team like that you have to be mistake-free -- and we weren't."
The first mistake was early and a big one.
Marion took the opening kickoff and on the third play Boston Ziegler tried to throw a pass to the left side and Highland defensive end Mitchell Focht snared it out of the air and returned it deep into Wildcat territory.
That led to Brady Feldmann's first of four touchdowns, a 9-yard run with only 92 seconds off the game clock. After trading punts, Ziegler was intercepted again in the end zone by Dylan Apken.
Highland made it 14-0 when quarterback Jack Etter found main target Sam LaPorta, the coveted 6-foot-4 senior, with a dump pass over the middle for a 32-yard touchdown with 14.2 seconds left in the first quarter.
But then the Wildcats proved they can hang with the state's elite with an impressive offensive drive featuring bruising runs by Drake Gravatt and a painful catch from Cade Cruse, a march capped by Ziegler taking in a 3-yard run with 5:32 left in the half.
The Bulldogs got those points back quick on a 3-yard run by Feldmann with 1:59 remaining before the half.
The scored stayed 21-7 at the break after the Wildcats went on another handsome drive -- a drive started by a 57-yard pass from Ziegler to Wyatt Fox -- but a fourth-down pass for Dylan Kinell in the end zone sailed a little high and Marion turned the ball over on downs.
"We had our moments and did some good things but too many mistakes," Martin said. "Quite frankly, they're just a better football team than we are.
"We had to play at a really high level and I thought at times we did but not enough times."
Highland dominated most of the second half with a heavy rain starting to fall.
Feldmann took in a 32-yard run and Etter connected with LaPorta for a 9-yard score to push the lead to 35-7. The prettiest Highland touchdown of the night came when Feldmann took a screen pass from Etter and went 58 yards to paydirt and made it 42-7.
Marion had another impressive drive, however, and added points when Ziegler took a big hit but flipped a pass to Gravatt for a 3-yard touchdown with 10:00 left in the game.
Highland added to its lead when Connor Sands got free for a 26-yard touchdown with 6:17 left.
Feldmann finished with 15 carries for 102 yards and LaPorta caught nine passes for 125 yards. Etter was 15 of 21 for 258 yards and three touchowns.
Ziegler went 8 for 16 passing for 123 yards and Gravatt carried 16 times for 57 yards.
"We put together good drives, the kids made some gutsy plays, the line was winning some battles up front," Martin said. "There were a lot of things that were good. You just look at the score and it got out of hand on us."
Marion plays at home this coming Friday against Cahokia.