If Goddard was to back up its claim as the best defense in Class 5A, it had to prove it Friday against Heights in the state football quarterfinals.
No defense had found a way to contain the speed in the backfield of the Heights flexbone offense, a trend that looked like it would continue in the first half of Friday’s game when the Falcons were able to gain the edge on a regular basis.
But when its season depended on it, the defense of Goddard delivered its finest performance of the season, smothering the Heights attack to less than 40 yards in the second half of Goddard’s 28-14 victory. The Lions (10-1) advance to the 5A semifinals with a road date at Great Bend (10-1), while Heights (9-2) is eliminated.
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“We’re just kind of living a dream right now,” Goddard linebacker Justin Amaro said afterward. “We know we’re not done yet.”
This was a matchup that concerned Goddard coach Scott Vang and his defensive coordinator, Darrin Fisher. They felt confident their defense was built to stop Heights between the hash marks, but knew they were at a disadvantage if Heights quarterback K’Vonte’ Baker or slotback Ontario Russell made it around the edge to the outside with their speed and elusiveness.
For the first half, the speed of Heights trumped the physical nature of Goddard.
The fears of Vang and Fisher were realized when Baker gained the left edge on the game’s first possession and out-ran the Goddard defense 72 yards for a touchdown — a play that was matched by Baker’s counterpart, Goddard quarterback Blake Sullivan, who scored on a 61-yard keeper to tie the score at the end of the first quarter.
By halftime, Heights led 14-7 (Baker connected with Tevin Hines for a 37-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter), and felt in control of the game. After all, Heights was consistently moving the ball, averaging more than seven yards per carry, and holding Goddard’s offense to two first downs and 117 yards.
“We felt really good,” Heights coach Terry Harrison said. “We felt like we were getting to the edge really well and doing a lot of good things in the first half.”
That’s when Fisher went to work.
He called for Goddard’s pair of disruptive defensive ends, Cale Davidson and Ethan Wright, to start stunting to try to confuse the Heights blocking scheme. Then he spread Goddard’s run support wider, giving his linebackers a few extra steps to outside to cut down on the angles for Heights.
“We had to find a way to start closing down on those lanes,” Fisher said. “When you have a team that buys what you’re selling, it’s easy. They play fast and they play physical, so I knew it was in them.”
Sure enough, the tunnels Heights was using in the first half to move the ball were closed shut in the second.
The results were stunning: the Falcons failed to register a single first down in five second-half possessions, as their offense could only generate 38 yards on 17 plays.
After averaging more than 44 points and 480 yards of offense all season, Heights was held to season-lows in both categories: 14 points and 275 yards.
“Give credit to the Goddard defense, they were taking some chances defensively and they were tough to block,” Harrison said. “I felt like we had a few plays where we were about to pop one to the outside and they found a way to get us to the ground. They tackled really well in space.”
Because of how effective its defense was, Goddard’s offense was able to eventually wear down Heights.
The Lions held the ball for 16 minutes in the second half, as Sullivan’s plunges up the middle became tougher and tougher to stop as the game wore on.
Sullivan’s 30-yard touchdown scamper with 1:01 remaining in the third quarter kicked off a 13-minute rally to close the game where Goddard would out-score Heights 21-0 to win the game.
“Heart,” Sullivan said. “We wanted it more. We really, really wanted this one bad.”
Vang identified a weakness in the Heights defense when Goddard would use its backfield to block for Sullivan when the quarterback would keep it on sweeps to the outside. Sullivan exploited this in the second half, where 19 of his 24 carries came from.
“We just found our groove,” Vang said. “We found something that they couldn’t stop. I thought we just wore them out in the fourth quarter, you could see it. We were running it six, seven, eight yards at a time.”
Goddard took its first lead, 21-14, with 8:56 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard plunge by Kody Gonzalez, then added to its lead late in the fourth quarter on Sullivan’s third touchdown run.
Heights had an opportunity to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, but its final flurry stalled out at midfield when Baker’s fourth-down pass was batted down.
“We just came out and played Lion defense,” Wright said. “We’re the No. 1 defense because we’re the most physical defense. No one is going to play tougher than us, no one is going to play more together than us.”
H — Baker 72 run (Urbina kick)
G — Sullivan 61 run (Cole kick)
H — Hines 37 pass from Baker (Urbina kick)
G — Sullivan 30 run (Cole kick)
G — Ko. Gonzalez 2 run (Cole kick)
G — Sullivan 29 run (Cole kick)
Rushing—Goddard, Sullivan 24-211, Ko. .Gonzalez 17-74, Driskill 3-12; Heights, Baker 12-111, Russell 9-47, Scott 13-27, Williams 3-25, Kirkendoll 2-0.
Passing—Goddard, Sullivan 4-10-0-68; Heights, Baker 2-7-2-65.
Receiving—Goddard, O. Beason 3-66, Cooke 1-2; Heights, Hines 1-37, Russell 1-28.