The game before the state playoffs, and third-ranked Derby was forced to remove its starting quarterback after his third interception of the first half in Friday’s Class 6A-District 7 championship game on Friday night.
How junior Brady Rust responded would determine if this grew into a crisis.
Derby coach Brandon Clark re-inserted Rust into the lineup to begin the second half and Rust responded by leading Derby on four straight touchdown drives to polish off a 45-13 victory to complete Derby’s 8-1 regular season. The Panthers will host East in the first round of the playoffs next Friday.
West (2-7) also qualifies for the playoffs, and will travel to Junction City.
“It’s all about how you handle adversity in this sport,” said Rust, who finished with 95 rushing yards and 92 throwing with four total touchdowns. “If you can play through the ups and the downs, then you’re pretty good, especially at the quarterback position.”
Derby fell victim to complacency after gaining a 7-0 lead 13 seconds into the game when West fumbled on its first offensive snap and Derby safety Caleb Gash scooped and scored from 20 yards out.
“We started off amazing,” said Gash, who also had an interception. “But then we didn’t feed off that energy. We just kept going slower and slower and slower.”
Derby built a 17-0 lead after the first quarter, but it was not result of crisp play. Rust had forced a pass and been picked off and the Panthers’ offense had stalled out after a first and goal.
Then the Panthers played perhaps their worst quarter of football, as Rust tossed two more interceptions and was replaced by sophomore Dan Dawdy, and Curtis Whitten (112 total yards, two touchdowns) let another fumble slip away.
When West pieced a scoring drive together, capped by a 3-yard plunge by Chaz Capps, Derby had lost all momentum going into halftime with a 17-7 lead.
“You can’t play like that and the kids know that,” Derby coach Brandon Clark said. “We were just making too many mistakes.”
“We got it together in the locker room,” Rust said. “We got yelled at a bit.”
More than anybody else, Clark challenged Rust, who he trusted as his No. 1 quarterback but wanted to hold accountable for his mistakes. Clark made it clear that Rust must be better.
And Rust was, as he took the first two plays of the third quarter for long runs and then tossed a simple dump-off pass to Whitten in the flat that he took for a 31-yard score less than three minutes into the quarter.
“That first half, that’s all on me and I’ll take the blame for that,” Rust said. “I knew I had to come out and lead this team. This is my offense and we had to put points on the board and I had to stop making mistakes.”
Derby made an adjustment to how it attacked West’s unique front, and it opened up gaping holes that didn’t exist in the first half. The Panthers moved the ball consistently on the ground and Rust wasn’t put in a situation where he had to force a throw.
It was the response Clark was looking for, as Derby played turnover-free football in the second half.
“Brady is our No. 1 quarterback, there’s no doubt about that,” Clark said. “We just have to wake him up a little bit every once in a while.”
Derby’s defense clamped down and never allowed the Pioneers to establish the running game they desperately wanted to spark. West was forced in uncomfortable situations, and as a result, turned the ball over three times and failed to convert on fourth down five times.
That was nice, but to Clark, it was imperative for Rust to play well heading into the playoffs aftter such a shaky start.
And after throwing for two touchdowns and running for another in the opening 13 minutes of the second half, Rust exited the field again — this time on his own terms.
“It’s always good to have confidence,” Clark said. “And I think Brady definitely left the field with some confidence.”
D—Gash 20 fumble recovery (Moeder kick)
D—Xanders 36 pass from Rust (Moeder kick)
D—Moeder 23 field goal
W—Capps 3 run (Ibarra kick)
D—Whitten 31 pass from Rust (Moeder kick)
D—Rust 6 run (Moeder kick)
D—Whitten 34 run (Moeder kick)
D—Taylor 12 pass from Rust (Moeder kick)
W—T. Rodriguez 3 run (Ibarra kick failed)
Rushing—West, T. Rodriguez 13-87, Parker 9-69, Jones 11-22, Capps 12-9, Reed 2-6, Leeks 1-3, Swinney 1-0, Rounds 4-(-3); Derby, Rust 11-95, Whitten 14-81, Carter 1-23, Dawdy 6-22, Xanders 1-2, Hayes 2-1.
Passing—West, Capps 9-25-94-1, I. Rodriguez 0-1-0-1; Derby, Rust 5-10-92-3, Dawdy 1-2-23-0.
Receiving—West, I. Rodriguez 2-28, Kletecka 2-26, Price 2-24, Malcolme 1-7, Washington 1-6, Reed 1-3; Derby, Lemons 2-31, Tabor 2-17, Xanders 1-36, Whitten 1-31.