One way or the other, Derby was going to discover more of its identity on Friday against Bishop Carroll in a clash of prestigious programs at Panther Stadium.
Were the Panthers closer to the team embarrassed by Goddard in a 50-20 loss three weeks ago or the team that rolled over undefeated Hutchinson 61-18 last week?
“Show me which one was a fluke,” Derby coach Brandon Clark challenged his team before Friday’s game.
Derby looked like it’s moving closer to once again becoming a championship contender on Friday, as it prevailed 54-45 over Carroll in a game every bit as wild and entertaining as the 99 points, 14 touchdowns, and 957 combined offensive yards indicate.
The win included everything Derby could want from a Week 5 game: playing in a high-level game against a quality team, overcoming in-game adversity, and ultimately coming up with more big plays in victory.
“That Goddard game, we hated that,” Derby junior defensive back Dax Benway said. “We don’t want to feel that way again.”
“We needed to show everybody that the Goddard game was a fluke,” Derby senior tailback Brody Kooser said. “I think we made a huge statement tonight.”
It didn’t take long for the expected shootout to materialize, as the teams scored the first five times the offenses touched the ball and Derby led 20-10 after the first quarter.
In taking its biggest lead, 26-10, Derby dug up one of its favorite misdirection plays. It begins with quarterback Grant Adler taking the snap in shotgun and starting his throwing arm in motion to send the defense scrambling to the flats. But Adler keeps the ball behind his back in his left hand, as Kooser discretely snatches it and zags the opposite direction.
This time Kooser sidestepped a defender in the backfield, made a cut to cross up another one before being wrapped up by a defensive back flying in from the side 15 yards down the field. The momentum swung the defender and the Kooser around in a circle, but he shed the arm tackle, kept his balanced, and used the swirl as a speed boost on his way to a 55-yard touchdown.
“It was a lot of fun, but also there was a lot of anxiety tonight,” said Kooser, who finished with 154 rushing yards and two touchdowns. “It’s fun playing in a shootout like that, but it’s nerve-wracking because you’re worried about getting far enough ahead.”
Down three scores in the den of the two-time defending Class 6A champions is a daunting place to be, but Carroll proved resilient with senior quarterback Braden Howell directing the offense up-and-down the field.
Howell used some misdirection of his own to score a 78-yard touchdown, looking off the defense to find Joseph Holthusen streaking wide open down the middle of the field for a 78-yard touchdown. He would add another touchdown just before half to trim Derby’s lead to 33-24 at the break.
Again Derby wrestled back the momentum in front of its raucous home crowd, as Cade Lindsey ripped a bobbling ball out of a Carroll receiver’s hands and returned the interception 22 yards for a touchdown to start the third quarter.
“It’s nerve-wracking out there on the field when the pressure is on like that in a big game,” Lindsey said. “But that’s what we’re built for here in Derby. That’s what we live for. We always say, ‘Bring it on.’”
After Derby claimed its third 16-point lead of the game midway through the third quarter, Carroll rallied once again. Desmond Smith would cap off a quick scoring drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge, then the defense followed with a rare stop punctuated by a Riggs Robben sack to force a punt. Carroll would trim Derby’s lead to 47-45 on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Holthusen, setting up for an entertaining final eight minutes.
Momentum appeared to swing even further Carroll’s way as its defense forced a three-and-out to give its offense the first chance at taking a lead in the game with 5:12 remaining. But Derby safety Hunter Igo jarred the ball loose from Howell on the first play and forced the turnover. Ninety seconds later, Adler pulled on a read-option and dove in the end zone for his fourth touchdown of the evening to clinch victory with 2:36 left.
“We had all of the momentum and our kids had a lot of confidence, but ultimately turnovers are going to swing the momentum,” Carroll coach Dusty Trail said. “Emotions play such a big role in the game and it was too big of an emotional swing for us to overcome when we had that last turnover.”
Derby’s offense had taken off since Adler was tabbed as the full-time starter in Week 3 and the sophomore continued his high level of play against Carroll, throwing for 122 yards, rushing for 161 yards, and playing a role in five touchdowns.
But Adler’s night ended grimly, as he was taken by ambulance to an emergency room with an injury suffered in the final two minutes of the game. Clark did not have an update immediately following the game, but players said they believed it was some kind of chest injury.
“Grant had every right to be nervous playing as a sophomore against undefeated Hutch and undefeated Bishop Carroll, but he just goes back there and is nice and relaxed,” Clark said. “He’s making huge strides and we just hope he’s going to be okay.”
Howell finished with 472 passing yards on 24 of 42 passing and four touchdowns, while Clay Cundiff had nine catches for 164 yards, Thomas Helten had six for 148 and Holthusen had six for 131. But Carroll finished with six turnovers compared to zero by Derby.
“Our kids are going to take this one pretty hard because they know our own mistakes really cost us,” Trail said. “Not to take anything away from Derby. They’re a great team and very well-coached, but in a game like that it’s going to come down to turnovers and they took advantage of our mistakes. Our kids are going to be disappointed, but we’ve got to use this as a positive. Our goal this year wasn’t to beat Derby. Our goal this year is still to come and we’re still working toward that.”
D—Adler 4 run (kick failed)
C—Steven 36 field goal
D—Adler 15 run (kick failed)
C—Cundiff 13 pass from Howell (Steven kick)
D—Kooser 28 run (Adler run)
D—Kooser 55 run (run failed)
C—Holthusen 78 pass from Howell (Steven kick)
D—Adler 50 run (Adler kick)
C—Helten 4 pass from Howell (Steven kick)
D—Lindsey 22 interception return (Adler kick)
C—Howell 1 run (Steven kick)
D—Taylor 38 pass from Adler (Adler kick)
C—Smith 1 run (Steven kick)
C—Holthusen 15 pass from Howell (Steven kick)
D—Adler 12 run (Adler kick)
Rushing—Carroll, Smith 9-39, Howell 23-12; Derby, Adler 20161, Kooser 23-154, Igo 1-(-5).
Passing—Carroll, Howell 24-42-2-472; Derby, Adler 5-11-0-122.
Receiving—Carroll, Cundiff 9-164, Helten 6-148, Holthusen 6-131, Smith 2-12, Becker 1-17; Derby, Brown 2-56, Taylor 2-52, Littleton 1-14.