SALT LAKE CITY – A little bit of offense, a lot of defense and just the right amount of special teams has the Desert Hills Thunder on the verge of their first-ever state football championship.
Zac Fuchs returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown and Bridger Cowdin sliced in for the winning score as Desert Hills beat Dixie 21-14 at the 3AA state playoffs at Rice Eccles Stadium.
The win avenged a 27-7 regular-season loss to the Flyers and sent the Thunder into next Friday’s state championship, where they’ll face the only other team to beat them this season, the Pine View Panthers.
“We knew we had to get some pressure on Dixie’s quarterback and be tough on defense and we were able to get that done,” DH linebacker Sil Bundy said. “We needed that kick return (by Fuchs). It really changed momentum around.”
Dixie had just taken a 14-7 lead late in the third quarter on a 12-yard TD run by Konnor Aitken, which capped a 6-play, 48-yard drive. Fuchs and Cowdin were back to return the kickoff, though the sophomore Fuchs usually defers to the starter Cowdin. But this time, Fuchs wrestled the ball away from his teammate, sprinted to his left and faked a handoff. He then turned the corner and found himself in the open field. With only the kicker to beat, Fuchs turned on the jets and sprinted the 92 yards for the tying score.
“I was running around just looking for a block and then I turned around and he (Fuchs) was gone and I was like, ‘What?!'” said DH’s Lausii “Boogie” Sewell. “No one was expecting him to take that ball and then he takes it down the sideline and I was like, ‘Really?'”
Fuchs’s big play made it 14-14 at then end of the third quarter.
After a defensive stop that included two sacks, Desert Hills got the ball back on a Dixie punt with 9:30 left in the game. On the first play from their own 42-yard line, the Thunder swept left with Cowdin. The junior running back cut it up field and made two guys miss on his way to a 29-yard gain. Three plays later, following a 14-yard keeper by quarterback Nick Warmsley, Cowdin dove in from the 1-yard line. That TD made it 21-14 with 6:46 left in the game.
Dixie’s final two possessions ended on interceptions by DH’s Landen Broadhead and Jacob Gabriel and the Thunder were able to kneel out the clock.
“We played good solid defense today,” Thunder coach Carl Franke said. “Dixie’s a great team with a great offense and we were fortunate to play them so well. It was just a good football game.”
The Fuchs kickoff return was the second big special teams play of the game for Desert Hills. That one came on the last play of the third quarter. The previous one came on the last play of the first half.
Dixie had tried to move the ball late in a scoreless second quarter, but the drive stalled and the Flyers faced a fourth-and-25 at their own 13-yard line. Franke used the Thunder’s last time out with 15 seconds to go until halftime to set up a possible punt return.
The Thunder sent two men back deep and sent everyone else after Dixie punter Gavin Graff. Graff got the kick away cleanly, but it was low and returnable and Braden Reber grabbed it and sprinted right. With the sideline clogged with Dixie defenders, Reber reversed his field and found daylight to the left. The speedy senior hit high gear and just beat the Dixie tacklers to the right pylon. The clock read 0:00, but the extra point made it 7-0 at the half.
“We sent an extra guy back to kind of cover of the field and we also brought a block as well,” Franke said. “We were just hoping to maybe crush that one end down and catch and we did. Braden was able to make a great play and Bundy made a great block and it sprung us.”
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Dixie finally got on the scoreboard early in the third quarter. Shad Pulsipher sacked Warmsley, jarring the ball loose as the sophomore quarterback tried to pass. Braxton Ipson recovered the loose ball at the 6-yard line and Ammon Takau scored two plays later to tie the game at 7-7 with less than a minute off the clock in the second half.
Both defenses were strong in this game, with the two teams combining for just 296 yards and 18 first downs. Neither team had drives of longer than 50 yards and both teams averaged less than three yards per play in the game.
“Our offense struggled a little bit,” Warmsley said. “But our defense was amazing today. They played like they have all year.”
Many of Fuchs’s teammates were still buzzing about his key kickoff return.
“(The kickoff return) was so important,” Bundy said. “I was not expecting that from Zac. Nobody was expecting that from Zac. Bridger was there getting the ball and then Zac goes in front of him and gets the ball and everybody on the sideline is like, ‘Why is he getting the ball?’ Then he just runs down the sideline and made a great a play.”
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Franke also chimed in on the big play.
“Zac just made a play,” he said. “He is great athlete and just a sophomore. He is a kid that plays fearless and he’s a great kid that you can play on both sides of the ball. He knew what to do when he got the ball.”
Amazingly, Desert Hills ended the game with negative passing yards. Warmsley completed just two passes, one for no gain and the other on a screen play for a loss. The Thunder had 124 rushing yards.
“None of that matters to me as long as we win the game,” said Warmsley, who did rush for 68 yards.
Dixie managed just 61 rushing yards and 114 yards through the air. Junior QB Takau was 15 of 25.
The Thunder will prepare for a rematch with Pine View, which beat them 16-10 back in October.
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