Defense holds unbeaten, eighth-ranked Knights scoreless in final minutes to preserve 34-28 upset
If the first half of last Friday’s football game with visiting East Valley belonged to Cheney running back Austin Kautzman, the second half – particularly the fourth quarter – belonged to the Blackhawks’ defense.
Kautzman rushed 20 times for 238 yards, most of it in the first 24 minutes, and four touchdowns to stake Cheney to a 27-7 halftime lead. In the end, Cheney’s defense played the game’s final seven minutes in their own territory, holding the previously unbeaten and eighth-ranked Knights scoreless to preserve a 34-28 upset in Great Northern League action.
“It was a really big game, we really needed it,” Cheney head coach Jason Williams said. “The kids played hard.”
East Valley had no answers for the 6-foot, 175-pound Kautzman in the first half – indeed Cheney’s rushing game overall, which amassed 409 yards on the evening. After a Knights punt on the opening possession, Kautzman topped a six-play, 87-yard drive with a 9-yard score, set up by Eric Igbinoba’s 55-yard run.
East Valley then marched 63 yards, tying the game on quarterback Taylor Watkins 5-yard pass to Gage Burland with 2:17 left in the quarter. But from here until the halftime whistle sounded the Knights seemed to always be looking at the back of Kautzman’s jersey.
On Cheney’s first play from scrimmage after the EV score the senior burst up the middle for an 80-yard TD. Kautzman’s third came with 7:20 left in the half, this time from 10 yards out with his final score capping an 83-yard drive, highlighted by his 48-yard run to the EV 5 with under a minute to go.
In the second half East Valley regained the momentum. After Cheney’s opening drive petered out on downs at the Knights’ 48, Watkins – aided by a Blackhawks roughing the passer call – guided his team on a 55-yard scoring march, hitting wide receiver Graden George for a 22-yard TD pass.
Cheney fumbled on its possession and East Valley drove 40 yards, pulling within six on Watkins’ 3-yard fourth-down scoring pass to JT Phelan.
Cheney’s offense counterpunched with a drive from its 30 to the EV 33, helped by quarterback Andrew Graham’s 17-yard pass completion to Calvin Berstler. On second and five, Igbinoba took a reverse around the left side 28 yards to the end zone and 34-21 lead.
East Valley cut the lead to six again, driving 67-yards and scoring on Ben Baker’s 4-yard run with 9:21 to play. The Knights got the ball on their 45 after Cheney’s ensuing punt, keeping their drive alive by converting a fake punt with a pass inside Cheney’s 30 with under seven minutes to play.
Here the first of two big defensive series began for Cheney. Igbinoba broke up a pass in the end zone on second and 6, Zac Corean tackled running back William Nixdorf in the backfield for loss and the defense tripped up a scrambling Watkins on fourth down to thwart the drive.
On the next play Kautzman had the ball stripped, and East Valley recovered on Cheney’s 31. But the Blackhawks defense again stiffened while luck departed the Knights. Watkins left the game with a knee injury after converting a fourth and 2 at the Cheney 23, and the threat ended with cornerback Marquis Allen intercepting sophomore quarterback Connor Ramm’s fourth down pass in the end zone with 1:02 to play.
The Blackhawks couldn’t run out the clock as East Valley used its final two time outs. The Knights got the ball back at the Cheney 42 with 3 seconds left, and this time it was Austin Harding intercepting Ramm as time expired.
Cheney moves to 1-1 in GNL play, 3-3 overall while the Knights fall to 2-1, 5-1. The Blackhawks have four games remaining, all of them big if they wish to reach the playoffs, beginning with Friday’s match up at Deer Park, 0-2, 3-3.
The Stags aren’t quite as experienced as they were last year in winning the league title, but Williams said they are still big on the line and athletic, providing a tough test for Cheney.
“If we continue to run the ball, play well on defense, we’ll be fine,” he said.
John McCallum can be reached at email@example.com.