DARLINGTON – Cambridge did all they could to slow down the Darlington offense in Friday’s Level 3 playoff game. But as the Redbirds have proven time and again this season, you cannot contain them for long.
The #1-ranked and top-seeded Redbirds found the end zone once in every quarter to pick off the #7-seeded Cambridge Blue Jays, 28-7, in a WIAA Division 6 state quarterfinal game played at Martens Field on Friday, Nov. 6.
“We had to earn this one,” said Darlington head coach Scott Zywicki after his Redbirds were held to a season-low 285 yards of offense and 28 points. “As Coach (Ryan McGrahanan) said, these are the ones you enjoy the most. (Cambridge’s) four losses were very deceptive. There are no gimmes anymore. All the teams we play now are outstanding. When you get to this level, it’s always tough sledding.”
The Redbirds (12-0 overall) were turned away twice in Cambridge territory to start the game– once on a fourth-down interception which stopped their first drive and again when a long Hunter Johnson touchdown run was called back due to penalty to halt their second drive– so it was up to the defense to shift the momentum.
Junior Brayden McDonald picked off a Steven Deforest pass near midfield and returned the pick to the Blue Jays’ 15-yard line with under a minute to play in the first quarter. Two plays later, H. Johnson race in from the 10 to put the ‘Birds ahead for good.
Chad Golackson added the first of four extra points to make it 7-0 with 11 seconds remaining in the opening stanza.
“We had a couple of opportunities (due to turnovers) and we took advantage of them,” explained Zywicki.
The Blue Jays (7-5) managed just 12 yards of offense on their first four possessions of the game, but they found some success on their fifth drive moving inside the Redbirds’ 10 before being turned away on an interception by junior linebacker Hayden Hardyman in the end zone.
Hardyman ran the pick out to the Redbird 25, and the ‘Birds went for broke on their first play of the ensuing drive as junior quarterback Jared Meister completing a deep bomb to junior Trevor Johnson, and Johnson outraced everyone to the end zone to extend the Darlington lead to 14-0 with 5:19 to go in the first half.
“Jared put the ball on the money, Trevor ran under it beautifully and it was off to the races,” Zywicki said. “Trevor really set that up well. It was a huge play at the time. That gave us momentum. The more of a gap you get between them, the more chances they have to take, which gives you more opportunities to get more turnovers.”
The Darlington defense continued to bend but not break, stopping Cambridge on downs at the Redbird 30 on their final drive of the first half and their first drive of the second half to keep their lead intact.
“We always pride ourselves in number one stopping the run. We pretty much controlled the line of scrimmage, and that allowed up to play the pass coverage that we did,” said Zywicki. “I thought our kids did a great job of not giving up the home run play. We gave up the one scoring play, but other than that our kids were in great position all night.”
A 49-yard touchdown run by senior fullback Conrad Blosch with 1:21 remaining in the third quarter gave the Redbirds a 21-0 cushion. Blosch ran 14 times for 100 yards to lead all rushers in the game.
Cambridge answered back with a 10-play, 73-yard scoring drive to trim the deficit to 21-7 with 8:37 remaining on the clock. Deforest went 5-for-5 for 64 yards through the air during the drive, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brenden Jarlsberg, who made an outstanding one-hand grab in the end zone to help the Blue Jays avoid the shutout.
Jarlsberg had four catches for 56 yards on the drive and finished the night with 11 catches for 130 yards to lead the Blue Jays.
Cambridge got the ball back with just under seven minutes to play, but were forced to go for it on 4th-and-3 from their own 28. Junior defensive end Josh Weaver corralled in Deforest on the play and his Redbird teammates swarmed in to help to get another key turnover on downs.
Working with a short field, the ‘Birds quickly found the end zone once more with H. Johnson blasting across the goal line on an 11-yard TD run to seal the Darlington victory.
The Redbird junior added to a pair of his season records during the game, rushing for 75 yards on 13 carries to become the first-ever Darlington runner to top the 2,000-yard plateau in a season and adding two more scores– his 37th and 38th TDs of the year– to increase his single-season scoring record to 236 points.
Darlington was held to a season-low 185 rushing yards and 285 total yards on the night, but still managed to outgain their guests after limiting the Jays to 49 rushing yards on 30 carries and surrendering 164 passing yards.
It is the fifth time this season the Darlington defense has held an opponent under 100 yards rushing for a game.
Meister completed 2-of-3 passes for 100 yards and a score for the ‘Birds.
Deforest connected on 19-of-36 pass attempts for 164 yards and a score, but he was intercepted three times and sacked three times by the Darlington D.
The Redbirds also have forced 37 turnovers with 22 interceptions, and have a +24 turnover ratio this season.
“We made up a game plan to stop JT Parish because they like to hit him deep a lot. We didn’t want to end up with one-on-one match-ups with him,” noted Zywicki. “It was all predicated on our front seven being able to stop their run and they did an outstanding job of that.”
Defensively, Meister recorded 11 tackles and Jesse Sturtz was in on 10 tackles to lead the Redbirds. Each player also had two tackles for loss.
Hardyman had five tackles, two TFLs, a pass defensed and an interception, while McDonald had six tackles and a pick and T. Johnson added an interception. Logan Muhlstein registered a pair of sacks, while Weaver and Brogan Evenstad each had a sack for the ‘Birds. H. Johnson, Weaver and Jake Tuescher had five tackles apiece for the night.
“We’re going to enjoy (Friday’s win), but we got a lot of work ahead of us. But, it will be enjoyable work,” stated Zywicki.
Darlington advances to Level 4 of the football playoffs for the third straight season and will be seeking their third consecutive trip to Camp Randall for the state finals when they travel to Middleton on Friday, Nov. 13, to face the Melrose-Mindoro Mustangs in a state semifinal showdown.
The Mustangs (10-2) upset the #2-ranked Pecatonica/Argyle Vikings (11-1) in a D6 Level 3 game in Argyle on Saturday to earn a shot at the Redbirds on Friday.
“They will be difficult to defend because they put you in a lot of one-on-one match-ups. They have a 6’3” receiver with great hands that is a match-up nightmare. Their quarterback is one of the best athletes we will face this year. He extends plays with his feet and will get a first down by scrambling,” noted Zywicki about the Mustangs.
"They also have an outstanding running back that is very difficult to tackle in the open field and will come out of the backfield to catch passes. It will not be uncommon for them to have five receivers in the pattern on each play. We will need to hold up in the defensive backfield and be able to cover and get pressure on the qb or it will be a long day.”
WIAA DIVISION 6 LEVEL 2 PLAYOFFS
Cambridge… 0 0 0 7 – 7
Darlington…. 7 7 7 7 – 28
D – Hunter Johnson, 38 run (Chad Golackson kick)
D – Trevor Johnson, 75 pass from Jared Meister (Golackson kick)
D – Conrad Blosch, 49 run (Golackson kick)
C – B. Jarlsberg, 25 pass from S. Deforest (Parish kick)
D – H. Johnson, 11 run (Golackson kick)
Team Stats: First Downs– C 12; D 6. Rushing– C 30-49; D 38-185. Passing– C 19-36-3, 164; D 2-3-1, 100. Fumbles-Lost– C 1-0; D 0-1. Penalties– C 3-15, D 6-53.
Darlington leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)– Conrad Blosch, 14-100-1; Hunter Johnson, 13-75-2. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)– Meister, 2-3-1-1, 100. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)– Trevor Johnson, 1-75-1.