The well-oiled Falls City Sacred Heart football machine performed with efficiency and precision, or up to its long-earned top-of-the-line reputation, Wednesday in a 44-20 second round playoff dismantling of previously unbeaten and second-ranked Stuart on a faraway patch of Nebraska soil. But nobody in that camp was in the mood for mechanical analogies when 13 hours after its initial departure the Irish’s chartered bus sat motionless on the side of the road for two (plus) hours and the sign agonizingly always read 62 miles to Norfolk. Norfolk, a city so close, yet so far away – and yet a beacon of proof that you’re almost only 200 miles from home!
Yes, the hardest part of FCSH’s second round playoff experience was the travel – no, hard doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was never going to be easy – a 340-mile drive embarking at 6:30 a.m. just isn’t your average teen’s dream day. But moments into the 340-mile return trip came the first misstep of otherwise nimble navigation through northeast Nebraska. Stuart football players didn’t hinder this journey, but a flat tire nearly made everyone lose it. The air went out at 7 p.m. – 12 1/2 hours after the day began – and that very same stretch of shoulder was two hours later still home to the most patience-challenged of all known living things: Teenage boys. Hungry ones.
“They’re hungry and restless,” FCSH Head Coach Doug Goltz wrote via text, moments after the ninth bell tolled. Can a text message convey a cry for help? We may not know until day breaks.
Otherwise, it was a glorious day to take a stroll through Nebraska.
Falls City Sacred Heart senior quarterback Austin Malone rushed for five touchdowns and threw for a sixth this afternoon as the fifth-ranked Irish overcame a pair of early deficits and once again cruised to a playoff victory over the Stuart Broncos. In a rematch of last year’s Class D2 State Championship – a 63-14 Irish romp – Malone and FCSH scored 36 consecutive points to turn a 14-8 first-quarter deficit into a 44-14 second-half rout. Malone scored on runs of five, 55 and 10 yards in the first half, then broke for 32- and 55-yard TDs in the second.
The Undisputed Player of the Game led his team to the end zone on each of its first two second-half possessions, effectively ending any potential drama. With the wind at his back, Malone threw a 43-yard scoring strike to junior Bailey Witt before busting free on the 32-yard TD run, pushing the lead to 38-14. On Stuart’s ensuing possession, freshman Christian Harring, playing for the injured Henry Arnold, intercepted Kunz deep in FCSH territory, further snuffing the Broncos’ chances to rebound. Harring assumed the position last week after the Irish junior broke his leg on an interception return, but he’s hardly played like a rookie and FCSH hasn’t missed a beat. Harring finished the first round win with eight total tackles and then Wednesday turned in arguably the afternoon’s defensive clincher.
“It was a great interception,” FCSH Head Coach Goltz said. “They were starting to move the ball a little bit.”
Malone was the hands-down hero and brought the Irish back from a couple early holes with three first-half rushing TDs, but the game ultimately pivoted Sacred Heart’s way in the final moments of the second quarter. With 80 seconds remaining and No. 2 and previously unbeaten Stuart facing third-and-goal from inside the Irish one-yard-line, the FCSH defense first staged a dramatic goal-line stand to preserve a 22-14 lead, and then the offensive only narrowly avoided undoing it.
Trailing by eight, Stuart rode a wicked breeze the length of the field with an opportunity to either cut into or negate entirely Sacred Heart’s lead. With a third-and-goal from inside the Irish one-yard-line, FCSH senior lineman Ben Mullins sacked Stuart QB Alex Kunz for a two-yard loss, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the three. There, a Kunz pass into the end zone was broken up by FCSH senior Sawyer Kean and the threat was extinguished – BARELY. After the Irish took over on downs, a fumbled shotgun snap was recovered by Malone just outside the end zone with just 20 ticks remaining. The eight-point lead was preserved by inches.
“That gave us some real momentum going into the second half,” Goltz said. “And we really took control in the third quarter.”
“Ben beat his block,” Goltz said. “I thought they kind of challenged our guys – their coach had said earlier that our line wasn’t nearly as good as it was a year ago, and things like that. I thought our guys responded very well and played well. We’ve never gotten on a bus at 6:30 in the morning to go play a football game, but the kids played just like they always did. Honestly, I thought they were going to be very tough to stop. I was afraid this could be a 52-48 type of game. I was surprised because I was afraid we weren’t going to be able to stop them – nobody had all year. I was afraid we weren’t going to be able to get to the perimeter.”
Kunz was one of D2’s very best signal-callers this fall, without question, rushing for 1,484 yards while throwing for 808 yards and 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Goltz suspected an early tackle dinged up the Stuart star in this one, and then the wind and Irish defense conspired to increasingly reduce his effectiveness as the day grew on.
Not the case, though, on the other side. After a 340-mile bus ride, Malone then directed his team to advance another 411 yards.
“I think maybe he had one bad read all day,” Goltz said of his first-year QB, who threw for nearly 800 yards and 14 scores during the regular season. “He just had a great game, and our line did a good job, too. They were really lining up to stop Sawyer as the pitch man on the option, letting Austin cut it up. Then we started running some of our dive option stuff and they weren’t very disciplined and Austin was able to get free several times.”
Stuart led 6-0 and 14-8 in this one. With 7:58 to play in the opening quarter, Stuart’s Mitchell Dvorak scored on a nine-yard run for the game’s first score.
Malone scored the first of his five first-half rushing touchdowns from the five-yard-line with 3:42 to play in the quarter and then added the two-point conversion run to give FCSH an 8-6 lead.
Stuart, which finishes the year with a 9-1 record, answered with 2:10 to play in the quarter on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Kunce to Micah Dexter. The conversion was no good and the Bronco lead remained 14-8.
Malone struck for a second time with 1:20 to play in the quarter on a quarterback keeper, taking the ball 55 yards to the house to tie the game. Sacred Heart never trailed again. Malone earned a TD trifecta and FCSH got its first lead of the day with 9:36 to play in the half, as he blew in from the 10. Kean added the two-pointer to make it 22-14.
Sacred Heart, 8-2, returns to Jug Brown Stadium next Tuesday for the quarterfinal round to face No. 7 Kenesaw, a 53-40 winner over No. 9 Randolph. Kenesaw is dominated by a name long-time Husker Football fans should be familiar with: Schnitzler. Craig Schnitzler started at quarterback at Nebraska during the late-1980s and now coaches sons Austin, a senior, and Preston, a junior, for the Blue Devils. The two players got hurt and missed last year, but returned in ’14 and combined for about 2,500 rushing yards at some 10 yards per clip offensively – and defensively are Kenesaw’s linebacking corps. They run behind a good line that averages about 225 pounds per man.
“Big, big boys,” Goltz said.
And they have a big drive ahead of them, too. It’s 200 miles from Kenesaw to Falls City. About the same as Norfolk.