SALT LAKE CITY
The Desert Hills players couldn’t help but express their emotions following Thursday night’s 3A semifinal loss to Spanish Fork. In the stands, the environment was more of the same as Thunder supporters tried their best to fight back tears of compassion.
The pains of seeing Desert Hills’ 2012 football season come to an end not only affected a select few, rather, its impact could be felt throughout an entire community.
The semifinal showcased a thrilling offensive shootout with 749 combined total yards of offense. In the end, the outcome came down to key possessions where the Dons were one step ahead of the curve, securing their 35-28 win over the Thunder at a gusty Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“We gave it everything we had,” said sophomore running back Bridger Cowdin, who finished with 148 yards on 23 carries. “I felt like we had a lot of success against their defense. … But they (Spanish Fork) made a couple of more plays than we did.”
The matchup featured solid performances by both starting quarterbacks. Ty Rutledge’s 166 yards on 11 of 23 passing with two touchdowns led the Thunder while Jason Money finished with 264 yards on 22 of 29 passing with two touchdowns for the Dons (12-1 overall).
“I love everyone on this team and treat them as if they are my brothers,” said Rutledge, who had helped the Thunder average 40 points per game in their previous five contests. “The togetherness of this team is very high.”
Desert Hills’ (8-4 overall) connection of Rutledge to receiver Jordan Hokanson was stellar in the first half with two touchdown bombs, one for 38 and the other for 42. The duo helped the Thunder take a 21-14 lead into halftime.
“I love having Ty as our quarterback. He’s always positive and never let’s up, so that helps a lot for our success,” said Hokanson, who had 106 yards and two touchdowns. “I would consider myself as one of the deep threats on our team. I don’t go into a game expecting eight to 10 catches, but when we are in need of a big play, me and Ty have that connection where he throws it deep to me and he trusts me that I will go get the ball and make a play.”
Added Thunder linebacker/running back Brock Johnson, who finished with eight tackles: “The team really responds to the energy and leadership Ty brings to the offense. When he gets going, so do we. Our versatility to mix up the offense definitely helps us with the kind of guys we have. We can run it or pass it successfully, and that’s been proven every week.
“If Ty makes a mistake, he doesn’t let that bother him, he comes back the next play and makes up for it. That kind of attitude really sparks our offense.”
Perhaps the game-changer occurred on the opening kickoff of the second half, a pooch kick that the Dons’ Heber Shepherd recovered to take over possession at the Thunder 23. On the ensuing play, Money found his cousin — Cameron Money (94 yards on 7 catches with 2 touchdowns) — wide open in the left wing of the end zone, tying the game at 21.
“That play really shifted the momentum of the game for them,” Cowdin said. “I think it was the biggest of the game.”
Spanish Fork outscored Desert Hills 21-7 in the second half. Jason Money’s biggest target was receiver Colton Olson (108 yards on 12 receptions), and although he went without any scores, the receiver helped moved the chains and keep numerous drives alive with big-time catches in the flat or across the middle.
“Spanish Fork is a very good football team. They can spread you out with their receivers and can come straight down and run it down your throat with their running game,” said Thunder defensive back Brad Wulfenstein, who finished with four tackles.
Spanish Fork took its first lead, 28-21, at the end of the third quarter on a Braxton Argyle (70 yards on 16 carries) five-yard touchdown run toward the right pylon.
Desert Hills showed tremendous spirit and struck back with an 11-play, 67-yard touchdown drive.
Rutledge produced a big completion and run to help extend the Thunder drive, so it was only fitting the possession ended with his 1-yard touchdown dash over a Dons defender, tying the game at 28 with 7:02 to go in the fourth.
After defensive stands by both teams, Desert Hills started its sixth drive of the half on the Dons’ 23. However, on first and 10 with 5:01 left, Rutledge was picked off by Cooper Beck in Thunder territory.
“Spanish Fork has a lot of athletes,” said Thunder coach Carl Franke. “They are physical up front and they are explosive on offense and defense.”
Spanish Fork capitalized on the possession, going 32 yards in six plays, ending on fullback Gunnar Beus’ touchdown dive for two yards.
With just 2:43 left on the clock, Desert Hills attempted to go downfield quickly, but ultimately couldn’t connect on one more big play, turning the ball over on downs at its 12. With the Thunder out of timeouts, Spanish Fork was able to run out the clock and advance to next week’s 3A state championship against the winner of tonight’s Dixie-Juan Diego tilt. This was the Dons’ first semifinal win in 93 seasons.
“I have had a blast all four high school years here at Desert Hills,” Wulfenstein said. “The coaches here really preach the word ‘family.’ On and off the field, we know that our ‘family’ has our back, and they know that I have theirs too.”
Added Franke: “We never doubted the talent we had, but knew that we would have to play well throughout the year in order to compete. This year’s team is one of the hardest working teams I have ever coached. The credit goes to our senior leaders and these great young men.”