HOLCOMB — It’s hard to imagine where the Holcomb Longhorns would be at this time of the year without its trademark defense.
Since dropping a week-two game at Scott City (23-14), the ‘Horns have been on a roll, winning 10 straight games.
The latest win came at the expense of those same Beavers, as Holcomb won 34-13 Friday night to advance to next week’s state Class 4A-II title game. That will be in Salina, against Frontenac, a surprising 37-21 winner over perennial power Topeka-Hayden.
The win also handed Scott City its only loss of the season.
But Holcomb is not ready to rest on any laurels of any kind because, as their team motto this year states, they have some “unfinished business” left in Salina.
Ask the defense, and they’ll say they’re not done yet.
That defense set the tone very early — as in the first play from scrimmage — when senior Peyton Leonard stepped in front of Parker Gooden’s pass at the 24-yard line, snatched the ball out of the air, and took it in untouched for the first score of the game.
It was 7-0 for the second-ranked ‘Horns, just 15 seconds into the game against the state’s top-ranked team.
But they were just getting started.
After the Beavers scored at the 6:53 mark, Holcomb turned the ball over on a fumble on Scott City’s 25-yard line. Two negative-yard plays put the Beavers at third-and-18, forcing a passing situation.
This time it was junior Reece Morss’ time to shine as he picked off another pass and returned it 20 yards to give Holcomb a 13-6 lead.
Those two pick sixes set the tone quickly and firmly, Leonard said.
“It set a huge momentum for us,” he said. “Our defense — our D-line — kept up their work, sacked the quarterback. We kept our lockdown on their defensive backs and it was an amazing game.”
Leonard was just playing his position on the opening play, not really thinking about such a dramatic pickoff.
“I just saw (Gooden) running that corner. I tried to hop it and I picked it off and tried to get that touchdown to keep our momentum going,” he said. “It was really up there and perfect for me to go and reach up for it.”
That was one of two picks for Leonard, his first all season.
Morss, who nearly had another pick six in the first half, said the defensive game plan for the night was to key on a lot more running game from Scott City.
“I thought they were going to run a lot more (isolation) and sweep, but when they came out with those passes, we were prepared,” he said.
The defense keyed mostly on running backs Wyatt Hayes and Jarret Jurgens and receiver Marshall Faurot, Morss said. They were able to contain that trio for the most part throughout the game.
“At halftime, there were not adjustments,” Morss said. “We were clicking. We’re definitely peaking at the right time.”
“We just played our positions,” Leonard added. “The linebackers played amazingly, and that’s it.”
When Holcomb practices this week, Leonard said nothing will change to prepare for Frontenac.
“We just keep it the same. Every practice is intense. We just keep it going and go to the next game,” he said.
The senior played in Holcomb’s 2015 title run. He knows what it will take to prepare for Frontenac.
“A lot of intense practices and the scout team going as hard as they can,” he said.
Morss said the cliché that defense wins championships is tried and true. It’s worked thus far, and it needs to hold for one more week.
“Execution and preparation,” he said.
Senior linebacker Paden Cornelsen, echoed his teammates thoughts about the defense.
“We’ve been preaching that all week that the defense sets the tone because if we kept our offense in good field position and kept (Scott City) out of the end zone, then we’d win,” he said.
The coaching staff put the onus of responsibility on the defensive line and the linebackers, Cornelsen added, preaching that everyone had to be disciplined and dominant.
It helped that Leonard made the Beavers pay early.
“I couldn’t believe they threw a pass on the first play,” Cornelsen said of the Beavers, who were known more for running than passing. “That surprised us all.”
He said the difference between the loss to Scott City in week two and this win was obvious. That loss showed the ‘Horns what they needed to work on to not let it happen again.
“They made us more physical because they (the Beavers) were more physical that game,” he said. “Since that game, we got more physical.”
Cornelsen, who sat out most of last season after a first-game ACL tear, is looking forward to next week’s chance at a state title.
“This has been a dream since I was eight years old,” he said. “I’m just really happy. I can’t believe we’re going to state.”
Note: Frontenac, 37-21 winners over Topeka-Hayden in the other semifinal game, is 9-3, has won six straight games, averaging nearly 41 points a game in that stretch.