2-1A playoffs - Oakley delivers solid win
By CONOR NICHOLL
OAKLEY -- Two plays encapsulated Friday's first-round Class 2-1A football playoff contest between Elkhart and Oakley High School. In the fourth quarter, Elkhart moved 60 yards, but faced third-and-goal from the Plainsmen 5-yard line. Senior quarterback Alex Gomez rolled to his right, faced pressure from juniors Taylor Murphy and Ryan Kuhn, and threw an interception in the end zone.
On the next snap, Oakley senior running back Key Keller delivered a 43-yard run. He eventually scored from 30 yards out. Elkhart moved the ball well, but the Wildcats went 0 of 3 in the red zone. Oakley's power running game wore down Elkhart and eventually led a 42-7 victory.
Oakley senior lineman/outside linebacker Eric Rucker hurt his ankle on the game's first play, the third starter the Plainsmen have missed this season. Rucker is expected to return for next Friday's home contest against La Crosse (10-0). Last year, Oakley lost to La Crosse 20-8 in the second round on the road.
"We have had to do this all year it seems like, and it's kind of frustrating as a coach, but it's fun to see the kids grow as well," coach Randall Rath said.
Oakley, ranked No. 5 in the Class 2-1A statewide media poll, moved to 8-1 and remained Kansas' No. 1 scoring defense at just 26 points allowed.
Kuhn, the nose guard, delivered another big game with two quarterback hurries, a tackle for loss, and three combined sacks with junior linebacker Dylan Gassmann.
"Give a lot of credit to Oakley," Elkhart coach Khris Buckner said. "They are great upfront. They are very physical, they are well-coached. They caused a lot of those issues, getting penetration upfield and we had a hard time blocking them."
Entering the game, the difference between the teams came in pace. Elkhart runs a pass-heavy, up-tempo spread offense behind Gomez, who threw for 6,609 yards and 74 scores in his career. Oakley wanted to slow the game with its power-running attack; Rath set a goal of 60 plays.
Elkhart ran 76 plays, but had just 329 yards. Gomez finished 25 of 52 for 269 yards and took a vicious hit that kept him out of the game for several second-half plays. Elkhart had trouble with big plays and hurt itself with 12 penalties for 71 yards.
"The plan this week was, we would rather give up 10 yards than let a bomb go, so our goal was to just rush them, put pressure on them and let nothing over our heads," Gassmann said.
Oakley ran 61 plays for 483 yards. Senior quarterback Darius Herl rushed 14 times for 77 yards with a TD, and passed for 74 yards and a score.
Keller had 24 rushes for 258 yards and four scores of three and 11 yards in the first half and 58 and 30 after the break. Early in the game, Rath yelled "Sprint!" to Keller on acarry, an approach Keller has taken to heart.
"Over the course of the year, I have really learned how to read the hole a lot better and just sprint through it, and if there is not one, just try and lower and make a hole if I can, find my way," Keller said.
Oakley faced immediate adversity when Rucker went out early. Elkhart had some big plays, including a 26-yard pass, and couldn't convert on a wide-open play on fourth down. Multiple times, Elkhart had drops or Gomez over or underthrew his receivers.
"We missed a couple things I thought in the first half," Buckner said.
Oakley took a 20-7 at halftime after drives of 10, 10 and 18 plays. The final one took 90 yards and went 8 minutes, 53 seconds. Elkhart's lone TD came on a 32-yard pass from Gomez to junior A.J. McKinley in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-14.
Just before halftime, Elkhart moved to the Oakley 11, but Gomez's end zone pass fell incomplete.
"We haven't seen this fast-paced offense a lot," Rath said. "I don't think there is a lot of teams that run it as well as they do."
Senior Wayne Flipse stepped in for Rucker on offense, while junior Freddie Kasselman played on defense.
"We were not adjusting very well," Rath said. "We tried three different kids (defensively), but they settled down, and then we were able to go in and halftime and make some adjustments, and get a kid there that we thought was capable of doing the job."
In the second half, Keller moved the score to 26-7 on his 58-yard run and senior quarterback Darius Herl found senior Braydon Hubert for a 51-yard pass and a 34-7 lead with 3:47 left in the third quarter. Elkhart responded with a 14-play drive, but turned the ball over on downs at the Oakley 4.
Gassmann often put pressure with a double 'A' gap blitz, a formation first popularized in the NFL where a blitzer comes in on the gaps between center and guard.
Gassmann would sprint to the line, stutter-step and move right over the ball before the snap.
"I am watching the ball," Gassmann said. "I go for kind of a scare tactic and just see if they will mess up."
The double 'A' forced an incompletion on third down and then junior Mason Scheetz batted down a fourth-down pass.
"We don't like to blitz a lot, but against this team, I felt like we had to," Rath said. "We knew they were double teaming Ryan, so we slanted him out into the B gaps hard, and he had two to three guys on him, and it opened it up."