Northwest defensive lineman Joey Gilbertson had the best view of the biggest play of the Grizzlies’ football season on Friday.
He knew Northwest’s defensive backs were making it difficult for Topeka High’s receivers to get open on a third-and-16 play from Topeka’s 3.
He knew his teammate, Garrett Bridwell, applied pressure that forced Topeka quarterback Corey Thomas to try to scramble to buy time.
And he knew Thomas didn’t see him approaching from the back side.
Put it all together, and Gilbertson pulled down Thomas for a safety with 3:12 remaining that provided the decisive points in Northwest’s 29-28 victory over Topeka.
Northwest (6-3) earned a playoff date with reigning Class 6A champion Derby next Friday with a stirring fourth-quarter comeback. The Grizzlies trailed 28-14 entering the final quarter.
Ironically, Northwest, 6A’s top-scoring team with 473 points in nine games, got the job done with timely defense.
“Defense, weren’t you sick of people talking smack on us?” Northwest coach Steve Martin asked his team as it huddled in the postgame celebration. “You kept us in the game.”
Indeed, Northwest kept Topeka (5-4) scoreless after a stunning turn of events late in the third quarter that allowed the Trojans to build a lead.
Topeka, which trailed 7-6 at halftime, took its first lead of the second half at 21-14 on Thomas’ 81-yard pass to Stephan Carter with 1:06 to play in the third quarter. On Northwest’s next offensive play, Topeka’s Joel Matlock intercepted Grizzlies quarterback Austin Anderson’s pass and returned it to the Northwest 10.
Topeka freshman running back Ky Thomas, who ran for 115 yards on 28 carries, scored his third touchdown one play later to put the Trojans up 28-14.
“You know, after the interception, nobody was really down on our sideline,” Martin said. “It took a lot of guts to stay in it.”
With the wind at their backs in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies began taking advantage.
Corey Thomas’ 7-yard punt gave Northwest the ball at Topeka’s 17. Northwest running back Jahlyl Rounds, who ran for 177 yards on 34 carries, made it 28-21 on a 3-yard touchdown run.
Northwest forced another punt, and pulled within one on Anderson’s 23-yard pass to Jalen Smith with 4:38 remaining. But Topeka blocked the extra point to maintain a 28-27 lead.
Northwest’s next big break came on the ensuing kickoff, when a squib kick eluded Topeka’s returners until Ky Thomas could retrieve it at the 1. He was tackled at Topeka’s 9.
“You know, if we were able to pick that up sooner, we wouldn’t have been in such a hole,” Topeka coach Walt Alexander said.
Topeka’s next two plays yielded negative yardage, setting the stage for Gilbertson. He tracked Corey Thomas down near the middle of the end zone to give Northwest the lead.
Topeka tried an onside kick, which went out of bounds. Northwest’s Martese Mullins, who caught a 94-yard touchdown pass from Anderson in the third quarter, sealed the victory with a 6-yard run on third-and-3 from Topeka’s 23.
“This one really hurts,” Alexander said. “We should’ve won that game.”
Instead, Northwest, which supplemented its defense with 522 yards of offense, moves on to face Derby.
“I’m very proud to be your football coach right now,” Martin told his team in its postgame huddle.
T – K. Thomas 2 run (run failed)
NW – Rounds 1 run (Benoit kick)
NW – Mullins 94 pass from Anderson (Benoit kick)
T – K. Thomas 1 run (Williams pass from C. Thomas)
T – Carter 81 pass from C. Thomas (Fiander kick)
T – K. Thomas 10 run (Fiander kick)
NW – Rounds 3 run (Benoit kick)
NW – Smith 23 pass from Anderson (kick blocked)
NW – Safety, Gilbertson tackled C. Thomas in end zone
Rushing – Topeka, K. Thomas 28-115, C. Thomas 18-86, Carter 1-(-4). Northwest, Rounds 34-177, Mullins 7-58, Garner 3-35, Martin 2-5, Anderson 10-2.
Passing – Topeka, C. Thomas 11-16-0-256. Northwest, Anderson 7-21-1-245.
Receiving – Topeka, Carter 3-130, K. Thomas 4-95, K. Gage 2-23, Essman 1-6, Williams 1-2. Northwest, Mullins 2-128, Reynolds 2-74, Smith 2-32, Rounds 1-11.