Darreon Jackson caught the punt at the 14-yard line and fooled no one with his first move. But his next dozen or so jukes, spins, cuts and reverses all perfectly unfolded into one of the most dazzling touchdowns of the season – a YouTube-worthy, inevitably-viral highlight that left visiting East stunned and the home crowd in awe.
The Derby senior returned the punt 86 yards the hard way – a microcosm of the entire night for a top-seeded Panther team that adjusted, advanced, retreated and struggled at times through a 39-7 win over East in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs.
Through two quarters the win didn’t look so secure. Derby turned the ball over on downs on its first two possessions – both after drives took the ball deep into East territory – and fumbled away another drive. With the inability to put together a scoring drive, Derby benefitted greatly from a 47-yard punt return to East’s 21-yard line by Jackson to set up the lone touchdown of the first half.
When the two teams paused for halftime, Derby, the top-seed in Class 6A’s west bracket, led an eighth-seeded team with a losing record by only a touchdown.
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“We were just making mistakes,” Derby coach Brandon Clark said. “We were still going hard. We were blocking better the second half with technique and staying on our guy. We were giving effort the first half. It just wasn’t working.”
While East’s defense kept the game close, Derby’s offense finally broke free in the third quarter. The Panthers scored on five consecutive possessions, including Jackson’s 84-yard scramble through the entire East special teams unit for Derby’s third touchdown of the quarter and a 26-0 lead.
“I needed to make a play, but I kind of got a little jumbled up.” Jackson said. “I saw faces all around me, and said ‘I gotta get what I can get, and don’t throw a fit,’ like my momma always says to my little sister.”
The family advice paid off. Though Jackson covered far more than 100 yards in the long-scrambling punt return, he wasn’t the only one tired after the play.
“The cool thing was though – that play probably took 20 seconds, and we had players blocking for 20 seconds, which is awesome,” Clark said. “Darreon walks off the field tired, but we’ve got 10 other guys walking off the field tired, too, because they all blocked for him. That’s pretty special when you see all that effort.”
Derby lost starting tailback Curtis Whitten at the end of the third quarter to a leg injury. The senior rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries before being helped off the field. But backup Garrett Xanders filled in immediately with three consecutive runs to cover the final 16 yards of a scoring drive for a 33-0 lead.
East quarterback Dominic Webb, tackled for a loss eight times, finally broke free for a 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But that was the lone offensive highlight for a team that managed 103 rushing yards and saw Webb complete 10 of 30 passes.
“We were satisfied with the way we started out in the first half,” tailback Calil Burnett said. “But the momentum swings got us in the second half.”
While Derby’s offense finally clicked in the third quarter, East punted on its first three possessions before Webb finally scrambled for the end zone.
But Xanders answered with a 43-yard run on Derby’s next play and finished off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run for the home team’s sixth score of the night.
Xanders finished with 69 yards and two touchdowns on just six carries, while quarterback Brady Rust totaled 115 rushing yards on 17 carries. He only made five pass attempts but completed three. Two of them went for touchdowns.
Derby (9-1) will advance to the Class 6A state quarterfinals to face Hutchinson (6-4) next week.
D – Whitten 16 pass from Rust (Moeder kick)
D – Lemons 18 pass from Rust (Moeder kick)
D – Whitten 6 run (kick failed)
D – Jackson 86 punt return (kick failed)
D – Xanders 1 run (Moeder kick)
E – Webb 61 run (Amaro kick)
D – Xanders 2 run (kick failed)
Rushing — East, Burnett 10-51, Webb 18-52. Derby, Whitten 16-54, Xanders 6-69, Ray 5-7, Shook 4-21, Hayes 1-9, Rust 17-115.
Passing — East, Webb 10-30 149. Derby, Rust 3-5 40, Shook 2-2 38.
Receiving — East, Patrick 4-35, Amaro 3-25, Edwards 2-46, Dixon 1-43. Derby, Whitten 3-16, Tabor 1-11, Lemons 1-18, Kelley 1-6.