The top two scoring teams in Class 6A football combined for 94 points and 976 yards on Friday.
So, of course, the pivotal play in Derby’s 53-41 victory over Northwest in the 6A semifinals was provided by one of the defensive units.
Derby, the two-time defending state champion, stopped Northwest on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Panthers rode that momentum to a 21-point flurry over the final 12 minutes to advance to the title game for the fourth time in five seasons.
Derby (11-1) will play Blue Valley North (8-4) next Saturday at Emporia’s Welch Stadium. The Mustangs defeated Blue Valley 44-37 in double overtime in the other semifinal.
Junior quarterback Hunter Igo, who was limited in the days leading up to the game by turf toe, passed for three first-half touchdowns and ran for three in the second half to fuel Derby’s offense.
“It’s been crazy,” said Derby junior linebacker Jacob Ormsby, whose 32-yard interception return with 4:04 remaining provided Derby’s final touchdown. “From Week 1, it’s been obvious that we’ve just improved so much and are getting more physical.
“It shows out there. Even though we had a rough first half, we knew we were in the game.”
What Derby has working this month defies anything produced on a stat sheet. The Panthers rebounded from an early two-touchdown deficit to outlast No. 1 Free State 55-49 in overtime in the quarterfinals.
On Friday, the Panthers offered little resistance against Northwest’s high-octane offense in the first half, trailing by 15 points on two occasions.
But with Derby’s 46.3-point scoring average trailing only Northwest’s 50.9 this season, there was plenty of time to put the seesaw in motion. Derby did it early in the second half, using Brody Kooser’s 51-yard punt return, Chris Whalen’s onside kick recovery and Igo’s first touchdown run to take its first lead at 32-28.
Northwest (10-2), unable to reach the title game for the first time since 1996, did put a temporary halt to Derby’s momentum. Quarterback Austin Anderson, who passed for 249 yards and two touchdowns, hit Jalen Smith for an 83-yard touchdown to give the Grizzlies a 35-32 lead.
Northwest benefited from a special teams miscue when Derby punter Dax Benway went to a knee to field a snap, giving the Grizzlies the ball at the Panthers 35. Northwest marched to the 1, using a 25-yard, hook-and-lateral pass for a big chunk of the yardage.
But on the opening play of the fourth, Anderson handed the ball to running back Breece Hall. Derby countered with an all-out blitz, and Hall, who finished with 164 rushing yards on 29 attempts, was stopped for a one-yard loss.
“That was huge,” Derby coach Brandon Clark said. “That’s when our defense started stepping up and started believing. They knew they could do it, but they needed that momentum, and they got it.
“Golly, it was fun to see.”
Instead of facing a double-digit deficit, Derby countered with a 10-play, 98-yard drive. Igo, who ran for 99 of his 154 yards in the fourth quarter, had runs of 26 and 22 yards, and completed a 14-yard pass to Jack Taylor on a third-and-13 play. When Igo scored from the 1 with 8:35 remaining, Derby had the lead for good at 39-35.
“We knew we had to get a stop, get the ball back and score one more time,” said Igo, who completed 15 of 19 passes for 177 yards. “We had to keep it going because Northwest, they can score in a hurry.”
Igo kept the pressure on, running 36 yards for a touchdown that stretched Derby’s lead to 46-35. Then Ormsby snagged Anderson’s pass in the flat, and weaved his way through Northwest tacklers with the game’s lone turnover to seal Derby’s eighth playoff victory over Northwest since 1994.
“After that goal-line stand, it was really hard to get the momentum back,” said Anderson, who helped Northwest roll up 529 yards. “That would have been a huge touchdown right there.
“The game definitely shouldn’t have gone that way. But Derby, they’ve got a great team over there. When they get momentum going, they really get it going.”
Derby (11-1) 6 14 12 21 – 53
Northwest (10-2) 14 14 7 6 – 41
NW—Hall 1 run (Benoit kick)
NW—Hall 59 run (Benoit kick)
D—Taylor 8 pass from Igo (kick failed)
NW—Hall 2 run (Benoit kick)
D—Larson 14 pass from Igo (Syring kick)
NW—Hall 1 run (Benoit kick)
D—Brown 33 pass from Igo (Syring kick)
D—Kooser 51 punt return (run failed)
D—Igo 1 run (run failed)
NW—Smith 83 pass from Anderson (Benoit kick)
D—Igo 1 run (Syring kick)
D—Igo 36 run (Syring kick)
D—Ormsby 32 interception return (Syring kick)
NW—Hall 21 pass from Anderson (pass failed)
Rushing—Derby, Igo 29-154, Kooser 19-116. Northwest, Hall 29-164, Johnson 15-87, Anderson 6-29.
Passing—Derby, Igo 15-19-0-177. Northwest, Anderson 16-30-1-249.
Receiving—Derby, Taylor 7-74, Brown 4-49, Walls 3-40, Larson 1-14. Northwest, Smith 6-137, Reynolds 6-62, Johnson 2-22, Hall 1-21, Patterson 1-7.