Friday night’s matchup at Howard Wood Field pitted two of the state’s No. 1 teams against each other, and it didn’t disappoint.
Sioux Falls Roosevelt, 11AAA’s top-ranked team, faced arguably its biggest test of the season in hosting the No. 1 team in 11AA, Harrisburg.
The Rough Riders (4-0) ultimately earned what’s now come to be the norm — a double-digit victory — but this game was closer than the 41-21 final would suggest.
“This (game) came down to about five plays, to be honest,” said Harrisburg head coach Brandon White. “That was the difference. We just took five plays off and (Roosevelt) capitalized on them. That’s what good teams do.”
For the first time all season, a team made Roosevelt’s defense look mortal. The Rough Riders had never allowed more than 10 points in a game, nor had they allowed more than 200 yards. Harrisburg (3-1) eclipsed both of those marks with 1:08 left in the first half as the Tigers found themselves with a 14-13 lead as halftime neared.
Harrisburg had all the momentum, but then came one of those plays White was talking about.
Roosevelt got the ball back and opted to try and score against a Harrisburg defense that had given the Rough Riders problems to that point. Quarterback Torren Devericks, who had five total touchdowns on the night, hit Nathan Varns along the left sideline on a short pass.
Varns shed a tackler, tiptoed along the sideline, picked up a couple blocks and dashed to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown. The two-play drive took just 19 seconds and gave Roosevelt a 20-14 lead.
“We were just trying to move the ball down to get a kick before the end of the half,” Roosevelt head coach Kim Nelson said. “But that’s the kind of guy Nate Varns is. He catches the ball short and can turn it into a big play.”
Varns said he felt he could take it upon himself to jump-start the team.
“I was wide-open on the out (route) and I had a cut-back lane,” said Varns. “I just thought I would take the opportunity to make a big play for the team and try to get the momentum back. … We were really down. We weren’t playing well. I thought I could get us going again.”
Harrisburg came back with another long drive to open the second half, and after a 32-yard gain by Elliot Cain, the Tigers were just outside the red zone, poised to take the lead right back.
That’d be as far as Harrisburg got.
A Roosevelt rusher came free at quarterback Hunter Headlee, and the pressure forced Headlee to make a poor throw over the middle of the field. Roosevelt linebacker Carter Lohr picked it off at the goal line and fell into the end zone for a touchback.
With a chance to take the momentum for good and potentially put the game out of reach, Devericks went back to the guy he knew could get it done.
Devericks hit Varns on the first play of the ensuing drive over the middle. Varns once again outran every Tiger for an 80-yard touchdown.
In all, Varns finished with nine catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Devericks threw for 387 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another three scores.
That long score put Roosevelt up 27-14, and coming back from 13-down twice against a defense that came in allowing an average of eight points per game was a lot to ask of the Harrisburg offense.
Nelson would’ve liked a cleaner victory, but said there are lessons to be learned from the game.
“I felt disappointed that we didn’t play as clean as we should have,” said Nelson. “It’s OK to see some adversity and be down early in the game like that. … It’s good for us to struggle a little bit and find our way.”
Follow Ryan Heuer on Twitter at @ArgusRHeuer .