LANGLEY — According to senior two-way lineman Sam Morrison, the Granite Falls High School football program had a reputation of folding when adversity struck in the past.
“This year we’re changing that,” he said.
That change started to show during the first week of season in a road game against East Jefferson when the Tigers engineered a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes of a back-and-forth final quarter.
“That first game kind of just kick-started our season,” Morrison said. “We knew it was going to be a great season right after that game. We came out in the second half and hit them harder, and that just says what we are as a team.”
On Friday night at South Whidbey High School, the Tigers’ new-found resiliency was on full display again with the Emerald Sound Conference’s final Class 1A state-playoff berth on the line.
Granite Falls trailed South Whidbey 12-7 at halftime after getting burnt by critical long plays, but the Tigers rallied thanks to a second-half shutout by the defense and a fourth-quarter TD run by quarterback Riley Hoople for a 13-12 win over the Falcons.
And now Granite Falls (6-2, 3-1 Emerald Sound Conference) is heading to the state playoffs for the first time since 1990 and just the second time in program history.
“Just incredibly excited for the kids. They deserve this,” Tigers coach Brandon Davis said. “We have a great group of seniors that have worked for four years and I’m just super thrilled for them to finally have some tangible rewards for all the time and effort and struggle they’ve gone through. We really have a great group of guys that absolutely deserve this. I’m just so proud of them.”
Trailing 12-7 with 4:12 left in the third, Granite Falls took over at the South Whidbey 40-yard line after its defense forced the Falcons into their second consecutive three-and-out to start the half. Granite Falls proceeded to go on a 10-play, 40-yard drive — aided by running back Gio Gonzalez’s 5-yard run on fourth-and-5 — capped by Hoople’s 6-yard TD run that made it 13-12 with 11:38 left in regulation.
The Falcons, who were in search of their first state-playoff berth since 1992, started their next possession near midfield and got down to the Tigers’ 33-yard line. But just three plays later South Whidbey was facing fourth-and-25 and had to punt the ball back with less than 7 minutes left.
It appeared to be the stop Granite Falls needed to close out the game — or at the very least drain precious time off the clock. But the Tigers fumbled the ball back to South Whidbey on the next play, handing the Falcons the ball back at the Granite Falls’ 41 with 6:41 remaining.
The Tigers’ defense held strong again and forced another a three-and-out, and the offense was able to take another four-and-a-half minutes off the clock before giving South Whidbey the ball back at its own 26 with one final chance to go on a game-winning drive.
An intentional grounding call after a botched snap on second down pushed the Falcons all the way back to their own 5-yard line and Granite Falls’ defense sealed the game after stopping South Whidbey on fourth-on-30.
It was the last of many big stops for a stingy defense that allowed just 13 yards on the ground, a stat greatly aided by the seven sacks Granite Falls’ menacing pass rush created.
South Whidbey (5-4, 2-2) averaged just 2.7 yards per play while totaling 124 yards on offense, including 18 yards on 23 plays in the second half.
“Our head coach (and) defensive coordinator, Brandon Davis, just schemed perfectly,” senior linebacker Marshall McBride said. “He knew what was going to happen when it was going to happen. He called the right blitzes and we were there. We performed. He gives us the tools we need. All we need to do is take them and use them — and that’s what we did.”
The Tigers also used the tools at their disposal in the run game to get just enough on offense, racking up 268 yards on 55 carries. Senior Gio Gonzalez finished with a team-best 124 yards, Spencer Shilling ripped off a pair of long runs on his way to 62 yards and Keldyn Smith added 47 yards to a balanced attack.
“I just think we dominated (the line of scrimmage),” Morrison said. “… We came out on top. We controlled the clock. That was a big thing.”
It was a stellar performance in the trenches for Granite Falls, but up until the fourth quarter it was the Falcons who held the lead for most of the night after big plays by wide receiver Lucas Taksony.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior hauled in a 30-yard pass and 49-yard TD in the span of four plays on South Whidbey’s first second-quarter scoring drive. The touchdown came after quarterback Ryan Morgan escaped pressure and found Taksony wide open in the middle of the field for a 49-yard catch-and-run that made it 6-0 with 9:31 left in the second. The Falcons went for 2 but their run play was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.
The Tigers answered back with a 1-yard TD run by Hoople with 2:47 left in the second for a 7-6 lead. Hoople’s score came after he ran for a first down on fourth-and-4 earlier in the drive. Gonzalez set up the short TD run with his 23-yard burst through the left side down to the 1.
But Granite Falls wouldn’t hold on to that lead for long as Taksony took a short kickoff down to the Tigers’ 21. Erik Haugen scored four plays later on a 2-yard run to make it 12-7 with 1:11 remaining in the half. South Whidbey tried for 2 again but the pass fell incomplete.
After a battle for field position for much of the third quarter Granite Falls took over a short field at the Falcons’ 40 with 4:12 left in the third. Hoople put the Tigers on top 10 plays later with his second scoring run and the defense shut the door to seal a monumental moment for the program.
“It was just an insane game. It was an all-out brawl,” McBride said. “We had a great, great week of preparation in practice. We played with our hearts. I’ve been playing with every single one of these seniors since fifth grade. We just went out there and we wanted it.”
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