The No. 4 seeded, 9-1, Sand Devils hosted Pusch Ridge Christian Academy (Tucson) in the first round of the playoffs last Friday night and crushed them like a burned-out paper lantern.
Friday night’s victory was the Sand Devils first playoff win since 1984.
Pusch Ridge won the 3A title last year, but also graduated a majority of its starters.
The Sand Devils won the coin toss and deferred to receive until the second half. The Sand Devils powerful defense wasted no time showing the Lions how it is they’ve allowed only two touchdowns in the last six games.
The Lions run an option offense, with pretty fair success this season and that option offense gained them a quick 36 yards on their second play from scrimmage, which brought them to midfield. That seemed to sober up the Sand Devils defense, which began taking their yards away until they punted.
The Sand Devils began their first drive from their 11 yard line and began their drive with a hand off to running back Kele Meredith. The Lions got their first look at running back Kele Meredith, which was a blur running past them down the sideline all the way to the endzone on an 89 yard touchdown run. After a missed PAT they led 6-0 with 8:34 left in the first quarter.
Throughout the game the Pusch Ridge offense made little progress against the Sand Devils defense. Their second possession ended in a lost fumble at the Sand Devils 22 yard line.
On the Sand Devils second possession they demonstrated what they’ll need to advance to – and win—the state championship, which is an integration of their running and passing game, patience and level-headedness.
The Sand Devils main offensive engine is their incredible run game, which is powered by Meredith, Robert Smith and Hayden Gracia. Coach Stephens has said all season long that when his team reached the playoffs he expects his opponents to bring a defensive configuration suited to stop it, such as a Box 8.
With that in mind he has been working on improving his team’s passing game – something that has been severely lacking in past seasons – and they have made considerable progress on it this year. Both quarterbacks, Smith and Gomez have pretty good arms and accuracy and they have a couple talented receivers to pass to, Makaio Warner, Brandon James and Justin Salabiye. Both Warner and Salabiye have made big contributions to the success of the Sand Devils this season.
After getting burned by Meredith earlier, the Lions’ defense keyed in on him with more intensity on the Sand Devils second possession, yet the Page offense still marched the ball steadily down the field with runs by Meredith, Smith and passes to Salabiye, James and Nikolas Yazzie. Smith finished the drive with a quarterback keeper for the touchdown.
The next Lions’ drive ended when Sand Devils defensive lineman Cheyenne Richardson nearly had the Pusch Ridge quarterback in his grasp. The pressured quarterback pitched the ball to his sweeping running back but instead found Sand Devils defensive back Austin Green stepping into the space. Green intercepted the pitch and returned it for a touchdown.
The Lions’ fourth drive also resulted in a fumble, this time recovered by outside linebacker, Denver Sheen. Sand Devils ball.
Run from Smith. Pass to Salabiye. Long run from Gracia for the Sand Devils fourth touchdown.
The Sand Devils offense showed that they are indeed still human on their next drive. A holding penalty, a bobbled snap and an offside penalty had the Sand Devils offense with their backs against their own endzone.
The next play was a delayed handoff to Meredith, who was lined up in the endzone. He was met by a horde of Lions and tackled for a sack, which gave Pusch Ridge their only points of the game.
After the safety the Sand Devils kicked off. The Lions ran a reverse on the return and managed to bring the ball to the Sand Devils 14 yard line. The momentum had clearly shifted to the Lions.
But, like the paper lanterns lifting off from city park, they were on fire and flying for a few minutes but were quickly caught and stomped out by the Sand Devils defense.
Two runs and two passes from the Lions offense resulted in seven yards. Not E-Nough!
And then on first and ten from the ten, Meredith dodged, stiff-armed, ran-over and outran everyone on the Lions’ defense for a 90 yard touchdown.
Momentum was safely back on our side.
The Sand Devils went into halftime leading 40-2 and didn’t look back. Dainian Sloan added the game’s final touchdown early in the first half, followed by two points from Gracia on the PAT and soon after that the game went to a running clock, something the Sand Devils have seen a lot this year.
Friday’s victory was the Sand Devils first postseason win in 34 years.
This is Mitchell Stephens second year as head coach for the Sand Devils and his teams from last year and this year are a combined 11-0 at home. After Friday night’s game he laid a lot of his team’s success on his offensive and defensive lines.
“We’ve got some big boys and I thought they did a great job tonight,” he said. “I was especially proud of the D-line, who stopped the Lion’s momentum after they scored the safety and had the big kickoff return.”
As the Sand Devils advance deeper into theplayoffs they likely meet some teams they played at the beginning of the season, starting this Friday against Christian Valley who they played in week five and defeated 22-15.
“We know Valley Christian will be tough,” said coach Stephens.
If both the Sand Devils and Snowflake Lobos advance they’ll likely play each other in the title game on Nov. 23. The Lobos gave the Sand Devils their only loss of the season on week four, defeating them 50 to 28.
On the offensive side of the ball the Sand Devils saw the return of quarterback Gabe Gomez who has been out the last two weeks with an injury to his left hand. And Kele Meredith had a career-best night of running, posting 277 yards rushing, including one for 89 yards, and another for 90 yards.
Defensively, they plan to just keep doing what they’re doing, said the Sand Devils defensive coordinator Mark Openshaw.
“Our defense is in a great spot right now,” said coach Openshaw. “For the rest of the season we’re going to do our normal thing. We took some lumps early in the season and that kind of thing makes you stronger. We’re not afraid of anyone.”
The Lake Powell Chronicle awards the game MVP to athletic director Ernie Rivers, who caught and put out numerous paper lanterns falling on the game field. Nicely done Coach Rivers!
Robert Smith was eight for ten passing, for 62 yards. He also had nine carries for 34 yards. Gabe Gomez was one for two passing for nine yards.
Kele Meredith had 15 carries for 277 yards. Dillion Anderson had seven carries for 49 yards. Hayden Gracia had five carries for 62 yards.
Justin Salabiye had one reception for nine yards. Dainian Sloan had one reception for eleven yards. Makaio Warner had two receptions for 16 yards. Kimball Begay had one reception for seven yards. Nikolas Yazzie had three receptions for 28 yards.
The Sand Devils will host Valley Christian (8-3) in the second round of the playoffs this Friday. Kickoff will be at 7 p.m.