On paper, this game was for the all-the-marbles Class 1A Div. I state football championship in Idaho.
But for the players and coaches of the participating teams – No. 2 Raft River and No. 3 Oakley – it was just as much the Cassia County championship tiebreaker.
And it ended up being a stinger, but in a good way for the Hornets.
Oakley overcame an early deficit to sprint past five-time state champion Raft River, 52-22, at Twin Falls High School on Saturday night.
Jace Robinson threw for three touchdowns, and running back Isaac Mitton also scored three times, including his final score on an emphatic hook-and-ladder play late in the third quarter.
The victory also gave the Hornets their fourth state title in school history – and first since 2009.
Second-year coach Brennan Jones, who joined the football staff at Oakley shortly after that 2009 title, told the administration when he applied for the head job that “we’ve left a couple more state championships on the field” because of lack of discipline.
Well, they were disciplined Saturday – and hungry to beat their far-off county rival.
“We talked about (the game) more in that fashion,” Jones said. “And that there would be bragging rights at stake for these seniors for the rest of their lives.”
These schools, separated by 60 miles, squared off twice during the regular season – a 22-8 Oakley victory in the season opener (scheduled late because of COVID-19 cancellations) and a 40-38 Raft River win in late October that gave the Trojans the No. 1 seed from the 1A Snake River Conference.
That loss also sent Oakley to the tougher side of the state bracket, which included a semifinal showdown against defending 1A Div. I champion Prairie. The Hornets prevailed, 42-40, in a back-and-forth thriller.
On Saturday, they immediately fell into a 16-0 hole after Thaine Loughmiller scored on two touchdown runs in the first 10 minutes of the game for Raft River.
Where the game turned in Oakley’s favor was on special teams – in particular, the punt game.
Early in the second quarter, Raft River’s Tegan Whitaker coughed it up when he was drilled by Robinson catching a punt and Tace Jones recovered it for the Hornets at the Trojans’ 43.
“Those are free downs, so I tell them, ‘Go get the ball,'” Brennan Jones said.
Robinson and the crew converted a third-and-25 play on Robinson’s 33-yard connect with Roberty Wybanga – and the quarterback finished the series off with a 6-yard touchdown strike to Tace Jones to tie the game at 16-16 with five minutes to go in the first half.
Raft River quickly went three-and-out deep in its own end of the field, and the Hornets deflected the punt, giving them the ball back at the Trojans’ 45.
Again, the Hornets hit on an improbable conversion, this time on fourth and 15 when Robinson found Austin Cranney for a 19-yard gain near the goal line – and Robinsons scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard sneak with 14.1 seconds remaining in the first half.
River Raft speedster Ethan Bernad quickly cut it to 24-22 on his 78-yard touchdown sideline sprint on the first play of the second half, but Oakley answered with three consecutive touchdowns over the next 7:40 to seize control.
Cranney was in the middle of the action again, hauling in a 30-yard pass on fourth and 2 to set up Mitton’s 4-yard touchdown run to give the Hornets a 36-22 lead at the 6:05 mark of the third quarter.
“Austin is the heart and soul of this group of seniors,” Brennan Jones said. “He flat-out came to play today.”
Two-and-a-half minutes later, the coaching staff went to its back of tricks on the hook-and-ladder call – designed by offensive coordinator Mark Mace, who was once a graduate assistant at Boise State.
“He’s got a whole file of those plays,” Brennan Jones said.
And it worked to perfection as Robinson completed a 12-yard pass to Cranney out in the flat, who lateraled it to the streaking Mitton for the remaining 25 yards on a decisive touchdown (and 42-22 lead) with 3:23 remaining in the third quarter.