Amateur football: Huskerz cruise to SPFL title
WORTHINGTON — Breaking open a tight contest with a dominating second half performance Saturday evening, the Southwest Huskerz capped an impressive inaugural season with a 39-7 victory over the South Central Hawgs in the championship of the Southern Plains Football League (SPFL) in front of a good-sized crowd at Trojan Field.
The Hawgs, who are headquartered in Truman, had won the league title four consecutive years and were also the two-time defending national champions in the amateur ranks — among four competing conferences across the United States.
After falling behind by two touchdowns Saturday, the Hawgs appeared to be swinging the momentum their way in the second quarter as the orange-clad visitors put the only points on the board in those 12 minutes and survived a late first-half surge by the Huskerz.
But, beginning with a 57-yard touchdown romp on a sweep to the left by powerful running back Darieon Smith, the Huskerz gradually took control of the game and pulled away in dominant fashion.
“All year long we have been a better team in the second half,” said Huskerz head coach Ken McCuen after congratulating his players and valued staff of assistant coaches following the victory. “I just can’t believe how well things came together for us and we were able to play so well — both offensively and defensively — in those last two quarters.”
Scoring 13 points in each of the first, third and fourth quarters Saturday, the high-powered Huskerz offense bettered its season-average of 34.2 points per game as they racked up more than 700 yards, effectively mixing the pass and the run.
Defensively, Southwest gave up just five first downs in the game and never allowed the Hawgs past midfield the second half.
Among the big playmakers for the Huskerz on defense was hard-hitting cornerback Tyler Decker (5-8, 185) from Sibley, Iowa, who is playing football for the first time with McCuen’s club after enjoying lots of previous success as a basketball player.
Decker, who intercepted a league-leading nine passes during the eight-game regular season, picked off a Hawgs’ aerial late in the third quarter when Southwest was assuming control. In the first half, he had several key tackles, including a text-book style wrap up right in front of the Southwest bench. Decker also came up with two other huge tackles along that sideline, saving a possible South Central touchdown on one and dropping the Hawgs for a six-yard loss on another.
“He’s a tremendous player,” praised McCuen about Decker. “He’s just very athletic and is enjoying playing football.”
James Augustus (four pass break ups) and Khalid Waters (second-quarter interception and long return) also had big-time tackles in the defensive secondary for the Huskerz following pass completions, while the four-man line of ends Mark Riley (four sacks) and Jordan Bouw (two sacks), along with tackles Eli Ackerman and Levi Ossefort (two sacks, five tackles for a loss) put constant pressure on South Central quarterback Jeff Sipple (Rochester).
“Our defense did its job,” McCuen said. “Both up front and in the secondary.”
Two of the Huskerz best defensive players — linebacker Demetrius Washington and free safety Rob Smith — missed the entire first half, but made their presence known in the clinching two quarters.
“Rob and Demetrius were at a wedding and we knew they would be late,” McCuen said. “They ended up missing the whole first half and things were better for us in the second half when they were on the field.”
Washington ended up with five tackles, including two for a loss, in his time at middle linebacker. Smith intercepted a late Hawgs’ pass attempt and returned the ball 28 yards along the South Central sideline.
Larson scrambles well, passes for 407 yards
Meanwhile, the Huskerz offense — which operated behind the blocking schemes of center Jordan Schroeder, along with guards Jake Steffl and Andrew Boneschans — was engineered by the nifty feet and strong arm of quarterback Jordan Larson.
An outstanding player for Hills-Beaver Creek High School, Larson was effective on the ground and through the air. He finished with 102 net yards rushing on 13 scrambles, including picking up 38 on four clutch runs during Southwest’s opening drive of the third quarter.
“He can scramble and is hard to bring down,” McCuen said. “Jordan’s been compared a lot to Fran Tarkenton and he certainly does make plays with both his running and his passing.”
It was a scrambling 49-yard bomb to Blake Schroeder (four catches, 111 yards) that provided the game’s first spark for the Huskerz, giving Southwest a first-and-10 at the Hawgs’ 21-yard line.
A 13-yard run by DareionSmith (140 yards rushing, two touchdowns) moved the ball inside the 10 and three plays later (on fourth-and-goal from the six), Larson fired a strike to Trae Johnson on a slant pattern for the game’s first score.
Heron Lake native Javier “Chippy” Jimenez booted the extra-point through the uprights and with 6:29 showing on the first-quarter clock, the locals were leading 7-0.
After an exchange of punts, Southwest receiver Caleb Hartwig (six receptions, 115 yards) made a fantastic catch on a long Larson throw for a 37-yard gain — along the same left sideline where Schroeder had made his earlier grab.
Larson (22-for-39, 407 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) connected with a wide open Waters (78 yards receiving, 66 yards rushing, 50 yards interception return) for a 15-yard score with 1:23 remaining in the quarter.
A fake kick and Larson pass on the two-point conversion attempt failed and the quarter ended with the Huskerz leading 13-0.
Hawgs run ball hard in second quarter
On the first play of the second quarter, South Central’s Tate Anderson (Trimont) ripped off a 14-yard gain on a quick opener through the left side of the Hawgs’ line. A nine-yard gain on a similar play netted nine yards and then quick-footed running back Joey Heidelberg (Houston, Texas) broke loose on a 29-yard touchdown scamper on a sweep to the right.
The extra-point by Jonny Christensen (Wabasso), who had some terrific punts, was good and with 10:52 to play in the first half, the Hawgs had sliced the lead to 13-7.
A great pass and catch by Larson to Johnson (eight catches, 130 yards) gained 27 yards and a 23-yard connection to Blake Schroeder moved the chains again, but the Huskerz next drive sputtered after a trio of incomplete passes near the South Central 20-yard line.
But the Southwest defense responded, including key tackles by Augustus and Decker, to force another Christensen punt.
Again neither team was able to sustain a drive and field position was beginning to favor the Hawgs. The Huskerz, however, battled out of a hole (from their own four-yard line) as Larson completed successive long passes to Schroeder, Waters (28 yards) and Johnson for Southwest first downs.
The Hawgs, however, recovered a fumble at their own 27 following a completion to Johnson and had the ball again with 31 seconds remaining in the half.
A Sipple to Anderson pass (tackle by Decker) gave South Central a first down. But Waters intercepted Sipple’s next throw and raced 65 yards for an apparent Huskerz touchdown.
A block in the back penalty nullified the score and another Southwest penalty did the same on a leaping catch by Waters (from Larson) in the right corner of the end zone on what appeared to be an 18-yard scoring strike.
“After getting those two scores called back, I didn’t feel that comfortable with just a 13-7 lead at the half,” summed up McCuen about the closing action of the second quarter. “But things improved for us in the second half.”
Huskerz take control, win second half, 26-0
Indeed they did.
After their first drive, highlighted by Larson’s running and completed passes to Waters and Jay Miller, stalled out deep in Hawgs’ territory, the Huskerz defense took control.
With Bouw, Ackerman, Ossefoort and Riley applying the pressure along the defensive line, the Hawgs were unable to move the ball and again Christensen punted.
Smith broke loose for his 57-yard touchdown run on Southwest’s first play, giving the Huskerz a 19-7 edge with 4:57 to play in the third quarter.
“That was a big run by a great back,” McCuen said. “We needed a home run type of play and Dareion gave us the lift we needed.”
A pass attempt from Larson to Bouw for the two-point conversion was incomplete, but the momentum had shifted back to the Huskerz.
Washington and Rob Smith teamed up for one defensive stop on the Hawgs’ next possession and Southwest began its next drive in great field position at the South Central 33.
The Huskerz struck quickly, again scoring on their first play as Larson found Hartwig with a 33-yard TD pass. The kick by Jimenez was perfect and with 3:04 left in the third, the score was 26-7 in favor of Southwest.
A happy McCuen (who runs the Huskerz defense) was elated with his offense as they came off the sideline, slapping the shoulders of several players.
“Our offense played so well, executing the plays designed and called by Brad Holinka, our offensive coordinator,” McCuen said. “We scored twice in a row on our first play from scrimmage following stops by our defense.”
Decker’s interception came on South Central’s next possession and Larson scrambled for back-to-back first downs before a pair of passes to Johnson and one each to Hartwig and Waters as the quarter came to an end.
South Central’s Beau Bachman, who played a stellar all-around game for the Hawgs, intercepted a Larson aerial (staying inbounds) at their own eight-yard line, stopping the drive.
But a pass knockdown by Riley, a double-team tackle by Smith and Decker and a sack by Riley put the Hawgs in another fourth-and-long situation.
Taking over at midfield, the Huskerz scored again as a 27-yard TD pass from Larson to Blake Schroeder capped a four-play drive. The PAT by Jimenez increased the lead to 33-7 with 7:52 left in the game.
A pair of tackles by Decker and a key pass knock down by Augustus highlighted the next defensive series for the Huskerz and a 10-yard rush by Waters and a 30-yard pass play from Larson to Johnson were big plays for Southwest on its next offensive possession.
With time running out on the Hawgs, they took to the air frequently and the Huskerz responded with a pass break up by Decker, a sack by Bouw and a fine tackle by Blake Schroeder.
Then Rob Smith’s pick and 28-yard return gave the ball back to the Huskerz, who sealed the victory with a 14-yard twisting and spinning touchdown run by Darieon Smith on a sweep to the left with 2:53 showing on the game clock.
A sack by Rusian Alfaro and a pass break up by Blake Schroeder were a pair of stellar defensive plays by the Huskerz on the Hawgs’ final series as time ran out the SPFL had a new champion.
“I am just so happy for all of these guys and for the community of Worthington, who sponsored us and really came out and supported us,” said McCuen, who lives in Brandon, S.D. “The response of the local fans was amazing. Our goal all along was to bring a championship to Worthington and through hard work and playing well together as a team with a family-like approach, we were able to do just that.”
Finishing with an outstanding 10-1 overall record, the Huskerz await the decisions of the other leagues who play the Nine-Man amateur game and may have an opportunity to play for the national championship.
“We just don’t know yet,” McCuen said Sunday. “We may get a chance to play for a national title in Minneapolis sometime in August or we may have to wait until December and play down in Florida. Either way, our guys will stay prepared to be ready to play.”
Regardless of the outcome of the extended post-season opportunity, the Huskerz are pleased with their championship run this summer (outscoring three playoff opponents by a combined 127-19 spread) and look forward to competing again in 2015.
“We are already planning to go for a second Southern Plains League title next year,” McCuen said. “It’s been a great season for all of us.”