Much to the consternation of the home crowd, Bear River was still in it, marching for the apparent go-ahead touchdown in the waning minutes against Desert Hills.
Yet no matter how many times the Thunder offense or special tams tried to give the game to the Bears, their defense seemed to bail them out. Desert Hills went to the well again, and it was far from dry.
The Thunder came up with a pair of sacks to stifle Bear River’s final drive and quarterback Ty Rutledge made a spectacular touchdown run that proved to be the difference as Desert Hills defeated the Bears 23-17 Friday night to earn a spot in next week’s 3A semifinals.
The Thunder face Spanish Fork on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. They know a performance tantamount to Friday’s will not do.
“We’ve got to clean up some things, but it’s a win and we’re moving on,” said first-year Desert Hills head coach Carl Franke. “That’s all that really matters at this point.”
And a team with Rutledge can atone for some miscues.
The senior’s electrifying 23-yard scoring scramble in the third quarter proved to be the difference — even though the play appeared ticketed for a loss. Rutledge dropped back to pass, was unable to find a receiver, then was chased to the right. Three Bear River defenders had a chance to bring him down, but he evaded them along the sidelines. As more defenders converged, Rutledge to cut back to the left where he outraced a few defensive backs before carrying one of them into the end zone.
“I was close to going out of bounds on the sideline, then I saw a cutback lane and got there,” said Rutledge, who completed 15 of 30 pass attempts for 203 yards and rushed for 95 yards on 15 totes. “I don’t really know how it happened, but it did.”
Earlier in the game, Rutledge connected with Jordan Hokanson and Josh Anderson on touchdown passes.
“Ty puts it on his shoulders and he makes plays,” Franke said. “It’s all guts.”
The biggest reason Desert Hills is moving on, however, is its stellar defense. It allowed just one offensive possession of substance — the Bears’ 10-play, 70-yard opening drive to tie the game 7-7. A large chunk of the Thunder’s gameplan was keeping quarterback Kyle Zundel from going wild. A week ago at Wasatch, Zundel was exquisite, rushing for 188 yards and passing for 95 as the Bears stomped Wasatch. He was nowhere near as successful this time (8 of 23 passing for 83 yards; 47 yards rushing), in part because Desert Hills made a concerted effort to keep him contained.
However, the Thunder’s graciousness as hosts nearly cost them a spot in the semifinals.
Desert Hills butchered a long snap and muffed a punt to give Bear River prime real estate on two occasions. The bad snap led directly to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Zundel to receiver Colton Jensen to pull the Bears to within 23-17 with 6:33 to go. The gaffe on the punt return set up a field goal. Following Jensen’s touchdown, the Thunder picked up three first downs and appeared ready to salt away the game until the drive stalled out at the Bears’ 32.
One last time for Zundel to rally his troops.
The Bears rode Jeramie Selman for 130 yards on 17 carries, including 18 yards on the final drive. Yet Zundel made a mental error that diminished Bear River’s hopes of succeeding on the final drive.
On third-and-6 from the Desert Hills, Zundel was whistled for intentional grounding. It resulted in a loss of 10 yards, forcing a fourth and long. On the following play, Brock Doman and Anderson combined on a sack to end the game.
The Thunder now get a spot on the big stage, two wins away from what would be the program’s first state title. “It’s what we play for,” Doman said.