Holcomb exploded for 20 points in a matter of 6 minutes, 45 seconds.
From a 0-0 deadlock to start Saturday’s Class 4A-II state championship game in Salina against Frontenac, the Longhorns scored three touchdowns in what seemed like a snap of the finger moment.
Two costly turnovers by the Raiders, one a fumble and the other an interception, created opportunities for the Longhorns that resulted in 14 of those points.
When the Longhorns added another TD with 5:40 remaining before halftime, the then 27-0 advantage seemed like a precursor to a rout.
But credit Frontenac’s stunned team, the Raiders finally cracked the scoreboard with a late 28-yard TD pass to get some points before the break.
And when the Raiders took the second half kickoff and drove 57 yards to score again, the once rout was now a shaky 27-13 Holcomb lead.
It wasn’t apparent in the heat of the moment, but the Longhorns had already planned an answer to the brief Frontenac rally.
At halftime, head coach Kent Teeter, a mastermind of the spread offense, had seen a couple of defensive tendencies from the Raiders, and in the locker room at the break went to the chalkboard and drew up a play that the Longhorns’ offense had never practiced.
Welcome to ‘Red Flip 21, ‘Bama Right.’
It wasn’t until three possessions later, after the teams had traded punts, that the newly-designed play would be used. Teeter told his staff that the Longhorns would score.
The result was a 52-yard touchdown pass from Trey Gilbert to Chance Rodriguez that broke the Raiders’ back and consequentially iced the game for the Longhorns early in the fourth quarter.
Game, set, match. 33-14 Longhorns.
“We run motion to the right side, put Chance at tight end on the left, and then wait for the safety to commit going to the right,” said assistant coach Jerry Johnson in describing the play designed by Teeter. “We had run the motion play before, and the safety came over. So if we ran it again, and the safety committed. We knew that Chance would be wide open, and he was. That’s why Kent has been such a good fit for us here at Holcomb. His mind in looking at the offensive schemes is just amazing. He’s so different in his ability to see ahead.”
When talking with Johnson, who had been the Longhorns' head coach from 2006 to 2013 (46-25, .648), it clearly illustrates just how much a cohesive group of coaches the team has put together. Teeter says the same thing as does defensive coordinator Brandon Hill, the veteran 15-year coach who piecemealed this year’s defense together early on and then watched the group blossom and dominate by year’s end.
The result of this mix of coaches has resulted in a four-year roll of 43 wins, seven losses (an .860 winning percentage), two state championships and two other state semifinal appearances.
In the two biggest games of the year — semifinals against Scott City and then the final against Frontenac — the Holcomb defense gave up just 104 yards rushing on 59 attempts, an average of 1.8 yards per run. That same defense accounted for 12 turnovers in the playoff run (eight interceptions, four fumble recoveries) for an overall plus-8 turnover margin in the postseason.
“Without a doubt, this group of kids did as much to execute the game plan we produced for them, and that’s what made this so much fun,” Hill said Sunday, less than 24 hours after the big win in Salina. “They bought in totally to what we asked them to do.”
While much has been written about the balanced spread offense of the Longhorns — and it certainly has earned its kudos — it has been the Holcomb defense that paved the way to their latest championship.
Cumulatively, the defense set the table for the four wins, by winning the turnover battle, and doing so early in games.
The Longhorns finished the four-game playoff set with a 46-6 scoring margin in the first quarter, and then added a 61-14 second-quarter advantage, making it 107-20 by halftime. The third quarter also enabled the ‘Horns to put games away and take pressure off any fourth-quarter heroics by the opposition. They owned that quarter 26-7, outscoring opponents 133-27 in the 12 quarters of the four games. With victory in view, Holcomb yielded 27 points in the fourth quarter of the four games for a final 146-54 advantage on the board (36.5 to 13.5).
“I’ve always thought we had the athletes here at Holcomb, but the big difference has been our offense — and Kent is the big reason for that,” Johnson said. “I think collectively, we all feel as though we have equal input. There’s no egos when we’re in the room meeting and talking about what we want to do. At the end of the discussions, and we have some entertaining ones for sure, we are always looking at how do we do what’s best for the program.”
Hill could also point to a key third-down pass play on the Longhorns' second possession of the third quarter and still only up 27-13. Gilbert found running back Kaden Tichenor in the middle of the Frontenac zone defense, hitting him 10 to 12 yards downfield that became a 25-yard gain on a third-and-16 to keep a drive alive. The Longhorns wouldn’t score then, but it set up a field position punt that did set up the game-clinching 52-yarder from Gilbert to Rodriguez.
That nail-in-the-coffin call made it 33-14 with just more than 10 minutes left on the clock, and the ‘Horns would get another Gilbert-to-Rodriguez score with 5:26 to play, putting the game on ice once and for all.
It was the same kind of play calling that Holcomb got from Johnson the week before when he called in a pass to the sidelines from Gilbert to Peyton Leonard that set up a TD against Scott City. Gilbert and Leonard hooked up for an 85-yard score just past the midpoint of the second period on Saturday, again taking advantage of what the defense was willing to give
“I’m always looking for green grass when I look at defenses,” Teeter said Sunday. “If there’s green grass, then there’s a way to get an offensive player into that area. I guess, if anything, that’s what I look for. It’s piecing a puzzle together and finding the right parts to fit.”
In much the same way, it was Hill who dialed up the Longhorns' stingy defense that accounted for so many turnovers by Scott City and Frontenac in the early stages of both games.
“I thought our four playoff games was about as exceptional as I’ve seen our team play,” Hill said. “Yesterday, they just did everything we asked them to do.”
When both Scott City and Frontenac opted to throw passes to begin each game, Hill said he was surprised.
“I’d say that it was respect for our run defense that perhaps caused them to want to throw early,” Hill said. “I’d never guessed that’s what they would do.”
Teeter said the game-planning that he and his staff put together is much like playing chess — trying to figure out what the opponent has done, and what he might do.
“I think you’re just always trying to find a weakness on the other side, and exploit it as best you can,” Teeter said. “But it makes your job as a coach easier when you’ve got the kids who buy in and do everything you ask of them.”
Johnson, too, said that this season was one of ultimate gratification for a group that came so far when it looked improbable.
“The more the kids were able to get reps and play, the more comfortable they became with what we were teaching them on both offense and defense,” Johnson said. “Ever since coach Teeter got here, we’ve been able to get better from start to end.”
That explains how this group of Longhorns saved their best football for the month of November, when they were able to enjoy what Teeter calls practicing for the ‘November sunsets.”