ST. GEORGE – The old saying about defense winning championships proved true once again as the Desert Hills defense stopped Bear River on fourth down to seal a 23-17 3A quarterfinal victory.
The Bears capitalized on a Desert Hills turnover-on-downs and began putting together a potential game-winning drive. Quarterback Kyle Zundel teamed up with running back Jeramie Selman to move Bear River down to the Desert Hills 22-yard line and the Bears were poised to steal a victory on the road.
But the Desert Hills defense refused to let the victory slip away.
“I have all the confidence in the world in our defense,” coach Carl Franke said. “They play hard and that’s all we ask. Good things will happen if you just keep believing.”
The Thunder forced an intentional grounding penalty and sacked Zundel on consecutive plays to secure the team’s second straight state quarterfinal win.
Ty Rutledge, who plays both offense and defense, said he knew his team would pull through in the end.
“It was nerve wracking,” Rutledge said. “I was praying the whole time, but in the back of my mind I felt like there was no way we were going to let this slip by.”
Perhaps lost in the emotions of the big defensive stop was the fact that such a stop may not have been necessary were it not for a few crucial miscues in the second half.
The fourth quarter was not friendly to the hosts as the Thunder committed turnovers on consecutive drives in the middle of the quarter. Rutledge fumbled trying to gain extra yards and later, the center snapped the ball over the head of the Desert Hills punter. The Bears took over at the 25-yard line and Zundel hit Colton Jensen in the end zone on the next play to bring the game to within a touchdown.
Despite the miscues, Franke was quick to note that his players are still learning the game.
“It’s high school football,” Franke said. “We don’t pay these kids to play. They’re high school kids and they make mistakes, but they play hard.”
Rutledge turned in another gritty performance and overcame two first-half interceptions to finish with 203 yards passing and two touchdowns. But more impressive was his performance on the ground.
He repeatedly broke tackles and eluded defenders en route to 95 yards and an electrifying 23-yard touchdown run that saw half the Bear River defense fail at bringing him down.
“I try to break tackles,” Rutledge said. “Anything can happen at any point in the game. If somebody hits you high, you have just as good of a chance at driving him back as he does you. You’ve just got to run with a chip on your shoulder.”
Another storyline perhaps lost in the thrill of victory was the fact that the Desert Hills seniors put the icing on an undefeated season at home.
“That’s a great feeling,” linebacker Brock Johnson said. “It shows how much work we put in at practice. Our defense steps up and gives us a good opportunity to win.”
DH led 16-7 at the half, with Rutledge connecting on scores to Jordan Hokanson and Josh Anderson. Andrew Yergensen also connected on a 25-yard field goal.
The Thunder (8-3) will now make the trip to the University of Utah and Rice Eccles Stadium to take on the Dons of Spanish Fork (11-1) on Thursday (6:30 p.m.) and the players remember well what happened last time they played in the stadium.
“We still remember last year very well,” Johnson said. “It was a great atmosphere, but this year we want the win.”
The winner of the game will take on the winner of the semifinal game between Dixie and Juan Diego.
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