On a night when sideways snow and blistering winds mucked up, stilted and stifled game play, Rigby coach Armando Gonzalez couldn’t help but be thankful when Mountain View lined up for a potential game-winning drive throwing into the wind.
With a return trip to the 5A state championship game on the line, there may not have ever been a more convenient time for Rigby to have the win at its back in the fourth quarter.
“If you turned around and faced the snow, I don’t know how you would even catch the ball, let alone look down the field as a quarterback,” Gonzalez said. “It was bad.”
The Trojans sideline cleared, players leapt in the air, elated, when Mountain View quarterback Jack Farris’ pass attempt on 4th and 12 to try to keep the game alive in the final minute was batted away.
In preserving the win — 26-19 over a 6-seed Mavericks team that has played its best football of late — Rigby (11-0) will return to the 2020 Milk Bowl Championship to defend a title it won in epic shootout fashion in 2019.
Gabe Mobley paced Rigby with three long touchdown runs — 21, 59 and 38 yards — capped by a 38-yard touchdown run with 7:32 left in the third quarter would lift the Trojans to victory.
Gonzalez couldn’t hold back his pride for Mobley — not just his performance when it mattered, but the commitment he made to get there.
Mobley was one of several Rigby football players who decided to no longer play after his sophomore season. He went most of the offseason without participating in team workouts until the following summer, when he told Gonzalez he’d changed his mind. He wanted to play again.
See, at Rigby, one of the state’s premier powers, rejoining the team is not as simple as a conversation with the coach.
“In our program, the offseason is the most important thing. If you miss the offseason, you have to earn your way back,” Gonzalez said. “He sucked it up, he played all JV as a junior, he trusted the process and us as a coaching staff.”
While much attention has been paid to Rigby’s talented receiving corps — and deservedly so — the senior running back, a between-the-tackles slasher who splits carries with junior power back Zheik Falevai, has produced all season.
And in a game marred by the elements (both teams scored touchdowns on blocked/fumbled punt recoveries), the Trojans were going to need to establish the running game.
Mountain View was led by Ferris, who set up the team’s first touchdown — a 1-yard option keeper on third and inches — with a long gain on his feet.
The win sets up a 5A title showdown against Rocky Mountain, the top seed from the west. Rigby’s penultimate step to repeating as champions wouldn’t have happened, Gonzelez says, if the team didn’t learn to play with a target on its backs.
That started when it escaped with a narrow road win at Post Falls (44-42) in Week 2. That’s when the team’s mantra “urgency now, or regret tomorrow” was forged. In order to be the best, the Trojans learned they would need to withstand each opponent’s best shot.
“We escaped,” Gonzalez said. “And I told them, this is what it’s like to be at the top when you are being chased week after week…we were not mature enough to realize that in Week 2.
Months later, Rigby is firing on all cylinders.
“I know what this team is made of mentally,” Gonzalez said. “I know physically we can play ball. We have a lot of good football players. But mentally, we are a tough football team. So it’s going to be a war next week.”
At SKYLINE 20, SANDPOINT 0
Sometimes, when all other options seem to be self-destructing, it is nice to be able to rely on an unbreakable defense to dominate in key moments – and win big games.
That is why the top-ranked Grizzlies are returning to the Class 4A championship game.
Despite turning it over five times, Skyline held up on the other end, limiting the visiting Bulldogs to just 99 total yards in a shutout victory at Madison High School in Rexburg.
Next week, the Grizzlies will try and win their third 4A title in the past five seasons. They won back-to-back state championships in 2016 and 2017.
“I am always a better coach when I have better kids,” Skyline coach Scott Berger said. “I’ve been blessed with great kids, and a great staff. This just means so much to Skyline High School.”
But first, the Grizzlies had to turn away their visitors from the 4A Inland Empire, who came into town riding a four-game winning streak.
And that streak was in large part built on an improving defense, especially against the run.
In the first 21/2 quarters, Skyline marched inside the Bulldogs’ 30-yard line five times. In all five instances, the Grizzlies came away with no points, turning it over three times.
And after Cody Steiger picked off Skyline quarterback Cade Marlow and returned it to the Grizzlies’ 37, suddenly it was Sandpoint in position to break a scoreless tie with 8:43 remaining in the third quarter.
“I tell the kids, football is the ultimate team game. You’ve got to have an offense, a defense and special teams,” Berger said. “If one of the phases isn’t doing well, the other phases have got to pick it up.”
In this case, the defense did. Sandpoint backed up, and eventually gave the ball back to the Grizzlies near midfield.
“The beauty of our defense, nine of the 11 (players) are returning starters,” Berger said. “When do you ever get that kind of experience? They’ve been through a lot of wars.”
On that ensuing series, Marlow immediately ripped off a 19-yard run – and the Grizzles went down and scored on the quarterback’s 12-yard touchdown scamper up the gut for a 6-0 lead at the 1:29 mark of the quarter.
“Give Cade credit, after throwing three picks, he did not go in the tank,” Berger said, “or we would have been in trouble.”
The first score opened the floodgates for Skyline, which blocked a punt to set up its second touchdown (Marlow’s 4-yard pass to tight end Abraham Silverio),
A minute later, cornerback Cooper Owen was off to the races on a 41-yard interception return, and the Grizzlies had a 20-0 lead with 9:10 to go.
“You just have to get it done – somehow, someway,” Berger said.
At SUGAR-SALEM 35, KIMBERLY 27
The road wasn’t easy, but the two-time defending Class 3A champions are in a position to join an short list of elite programs.
Senior running back Logan Cutler rushed for 162 yards and three touchdowns, and wide receiver Crew Clark added 110 yards and a score as the No. 2 Diggers beat third-ranked Kimberly at Madison High School in Rexburg.
Sugar-Salem advances to the state championship game, and has a chance to join Madison (1982-84) and Snake River (1998-2002) as the only programs to win three consecutive 3A titles.
“This is huge, especially for these kids,” Diggers coach Tyler Richins said. “After graduating 25 seniors, I don’t think many outside this program gave us a chance to play for another state championship.
“These players did not want to be the team that was just along for the ride during the last two state championships.”
It certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing for Sugar-Salem, which lost to South Fremont during the regular season, and had to win a mini-tiebreaker just to get into the 3A playoffs.
Plus, Richins and his coaching staff had reshuffled personnel throughout the season, especially along an offensive line that returned no starters.
It is safe to say they’ve found a combination that works.
Cutler, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound senior, was the workhorse Friday night, wearing down a Kimberly defense is less-than-optimum conditions – sub-freezing temperatures with a howling wind and a splattering of snowfall.
Cutler carried it 27 times, and scored all three of his touchdowns on short runs.
During a three-minute span midway through the third quarter, the Diggers put the Bulldogs away.
Fullback Trevor Christensen fumbled at the Kimberly 40-yard line, setting the Diggers up on a short field.
And on fourth-and-short, quarterback Kyzon Garner rumbled up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown to put the Diggers up, 28-12 at the 7:25 mark.
Kimberly quickly went three-and-out on its next drive, and Clark returned a low punt back to the Bulldogs’ 18.
Cutler finished off another scoring drive with his 2-yard touchdown rumble for a 35-12 Diggers’ lead with 4:11 to go.
“We knew we were kicking off to start the second half, and the wind was pretty nasty,” Richins said. “We just said, ‘Let’s take the (best wind direction) and see if we could put points up quick, knowing that could hurt their confidence a little bit.”
Heath Owens threw a touchdown pass, and ran for another in the fourth quarter to close the gap for Kimberly. He finished completing 13 of 27 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our young players have stepped up – and on that offensive line, everybody is peaking at the right time,” Richins said.
At WEST SIDE 7, DECLO 0
As good as things have been for the reigning Class 2A champions during their school-record 20-game winning streak, there has been one program that has been a stinger in their side over the years.
It’s been the Hornets.
And on Friday, the two teams played a brutally-punishing, even-steven ballgame in a blistering blizzard in Dayton – except for the one scoring play that sent the top-ranked Pirates back to the state championship game.
Quarterback Blaize Brown, who made a few notable escape-job plays, saved his best one with less than five minutes remaining in the first quarter, ducking under pressure, and scooting around an outside defender for a 46-yard touchdown run.
“He has the green light on that, and if he feels the middle opening up, he is welcome to run it,” West Side coach Tyson Moser said. “He just hasn’t done that as much as we’d like him to.”
After that, the two defenses took over the action as neither team came close to scoring again.
Fourth-ranked Declo had one big opportunity, putting together a long drive near the end of the third quarter that reached the West Side 20-yard line.
But Pirates defensive end Wes Milburn dropped running back Derek Matthews for a 2-yard loss on second down. And the scoring threat stalled with Gabe Matthews threw back-to-back incomplete passes – the final one intended for Jaden Price in the right flat with nine minutes remaining.
At that point, with the way these offense operated at a plodding pace, especially under slick footing, time became an issue.
And West Side punter Easton Shurtliff perhaps made the game’s biggest heads-up play that won’t be noticed on the stat sheet.
Facing fourth-and-inches from the Pirates’ 29, Shurtliff lined up in punt formation with 7:22 to go. As soon as the Declo return team set up, he rushed to the line of scrimmage, as if to take a handoff.
Shurtliff’s hard count drew the Declo defense offside, and West Side was rewarded with a new set of downs to milk the clock.
“I am proud of our kids – they played hard,” Declo coach Joshua Stewart said. “The difference in the game was that they were more disciplined. We had too many penalties, and they came at critical times.”
Declo was set to get the football back for one chance at a game-tying score, but a defender was flagged for a late out-of-bounds-hit penalty on third down with 1:50 to go, allowing West Side to keep possession instead.
The Pirates snapped a five-game losing streak to Declo, including two 2A semifinal losses in 2017 and 2018 when the Hornets won back-to-back state titles.
“They have been a thorn in our side, so that makes a win like today a little more special,” Moser said. “They are a great program.”
Now, West Side has that same opportunity for a repeat championship run.
“In a year like this with all the craziness, and to still be playing, these kids have handled the whole 2020 situation very well,” Moser said.