KENSINGTON — Friday’s battle of unbeatens between Osborne and Thunder Ridge may have lost some star power in the second half, but it didn’t lose any of the drama.
Reece Struckhoff rushed for 169 yards and four touchdowns in the first quarter to carry Thunder Ridge to a 26-20 halftime lead, but the Longhorns' standout running back was held out of the second half due to injury.
In a valiant effort without their senior star, the Longhorns owned the lead with under a minute left before Osborne scored with 34.7 seconds remaining to escape with a 40-34 victory and claim the Eight-Man Division II District 5 championship.
The Longhorns grabbed a two-point lead with 5:38 left on a safety, but Osborne forced a stop and capped off its game-winning drive with senior quarterback Steele Wolters' 11-yard touchdown run on a sweep around the left side.
“I just told my coach (Steve Tiernan) that I wanted to run that (play),” said Wolters, who also added the two-point conversion. “I knew that my line would block for it. Everybody did their job and I didn’t have to beat anybody. It was wide open.”
Struckhoff was a one-man wrecking crew in the first quarter, scoring on runs of 1, 55, 15 and 19 yards to stake the Longhorns to a 26-6 lead. He appeared to be shaken up late in the second quarter.
“We came into the locker room at halftime and he had a little bit of a ding,” Thunder Ridge coach Joel Struckhoff said. “Just didn’t feel like we needed to put him back out there the second half.”
Thunder Ridge saw the Bulldogs tie it up at 26 early in the frame on a Wotlters' touchdown and Evan Garman caught a 9-yard touchdown pass for his first reception of the year to give the Bulldogs the lead.
Thunder Ridge looked to have grabbed the lead earlier in the quarter on Dylan Bice's touchdown pass to freshman Kaleb Wagenblast but the TD was wiped out by offensive pass interference. Bice, also a freshman, later found Wagenblast again for a 30-yard pass play to set up Colton Davis’ 2-yard touchdown run with 7:26 left in the game. The score remained tied at 32 after the two-point try failed.
The Longhorns then suddenly found themselves in front after Wolters bobbled the ball and was sacked by Davis in the end zone for a safety.
“We’re never going to quit,” Joel Struckhoff said. “These boys have been through a lot this year already. They’re never going to give up. Regardless of who we got on the field, all eight of them are going to give everything they got every night.”
After the safety, Osborne forced a Thunder Ridge punt and calmly drove down the field to move back ahead on Wolters' fourth rushing touchdown of the night.
“We knew they had a lot of speed and we tried to contain it — without Reece, that’s real tough," Joel Struckhoff said. "We knew that they were going to probably run a sweep, we tried to play man-on-man with them, and it just didn’t work out for us."
The Longhorns still had a chance, starting their final possession at their own 32. A long pass from quarterback Bice was just out of reach for Davis, and a high snap on third down sent Bice retreating back for the ball before he was tackled for a loss on the game's final play. Thunder Ridge tried to run a fake-spike play on fourth down but the officials ruled the Longhorns didn’t get the play off before time had expired.
After Struckhoff put Thunder Ridge up 14-6 with a 55-yard run in the first, the Longhorns recovered the ensuing kickoff and took advantage with Struckhoff's 15-yard TD. He made it 26-6 late in the first with a 39-yard run.
Osborne (8-0) stayed poised and used a 21-yard TD from Wolters and a 4-yard run from sophomore Mason Schurr to pull within six by the break.
“We say 'Stay the course, stay the course, don’t look at the scoreboard,'” Tiernan said. “We’ve said that all year, whether we’re up a bunch or down a bunch.”
Tiernan, who is in the first year of his second stint as head coach at Osborne and guided the program to a state title in 2013, said the Bulldogs will look to clean things up in the playoffs after untimely turnovers and penalties Friday.
“Very ugly, but that’s not to take anything away from (Thunder Ridge),” Tiernan said. “A lot of our ugliness was due to them. A lot of things uncharacteristic of us, but it’s a big game, everybody’s a little jittery. Credit to the other team.”
“Obviously that really hurt them offensively (when Struckhoff was sidelined),” Tiernan added. “Up front ... our (line) all year had been very good. And (Thunder Ridge) kind of dominated the line."
A highlight for Tiernan was seeing Garman come through with a key touchdown catch.
"Last game we tried to target him a few times and it just didn't work out," Tiernan said. "I'm very glad that he did well. That was fun."
It was the biggest game in Kensington in a few years, with Thunder Ridge enjoying a resurgence under Joel Struckhoff, who led the Longhorns to a state title as a player in 2011. Thunder Ridge went 5-4 last season after winning just four games from 2015-17.
“It’s great to get back to this type of atmosphere in Kensington,” Joel Struckhoff said. “It’s been a few years since we’ve had this type of atmosphere and it’s great seeing all the people back out here supporting our team. Props to Osborne, great football team.”
Reece Struckhoff finished with 181 yards on 15 carries. Joel Struckhoff said Reece, who is the coach's cousin, should be available for Thunder Ridge's playoff opener against Quinter (3-5) at 6 p.m. Thursday in Kensington.
“I think he’ll be perfectly fine by Thursday," he said.
Osborne, last year's Eight-Man Division II runner-up, will play host to Sharon-Springs Wallace County (2-6) in its playoff opener at 6 p.m. Thursday in Osborne.