CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Sergeant Bluff-Luton gave a good team a second chance.
Western Dubuque didn’t waste it.
The Warriors put together an impressive drive in the third quarter to cut the Bobcats’ lead to 14-12 but the ensuing kickoff was booted out of bounds. Eighth-ranked Western Dubuque elected to have the Warriors kick the ball again and this time Will Burds fielded the ball on his own 20 and cut up the right side of the field for an 80-yard score.
The Bobcats (10-2) capitalized on special teams all game long on their way to a 35-18 Class 3A state semifinal victory over the Warriors Thursday at the UNI-Dome.
“We struggled a little bit with our special teams tonight,” Sergeant Bluff-Luton coach Justin Smith said. “They had a few athletes out there and we had a hard time getting off of blocks and getting in our pursuit lanes. Those things will happen and you have to give them credit to scheme that up and execute it.”
The game-changing play almost wasn’t according to Western Dubuque coach Justin Penner.
“The best offensive call I had all night was when my assistant told me to have them re-kick the ball,” he said. “The purpose of any return team is to possess the football. We would have had the ball at the 35-yard line and we were trying to draw up a script for that series, but Will Burds has had two touchdowns on kickoff returns throughout the year.
“My hat is off to (my assistant coach) doing what he did.”
No. 5 SB-L (10-2) made the game interesting by marching the ball 58 yards for a score in the third quarter. Senior running back Britton Delperdang finally found a little traction on the ground and ran for 24 yards on the drive, including the final two to cut the advantage to a pair.
“They gave it their all and we gave it our all and we can’t really control how physical they are,” said Delperdang as the Warriors were held to 81 yards on the ground. “It is a momentum game a lot of times and we just didn’t have enough momentum swings on our side.”
Burds not only made the big special teams play on the kickoff that made it 21-12, he also returned an onside kick 49 yards to increase the lead to 35-18. In between, Western Dubuque scored on a 20-yard pass from Calvin Harris to Drake George before SB-L responded on a 24-yard dart from Daniel Wright to Sam DeMoss.
“It was one missed assignment that ended up being a big play,” said SB-L receiver Conner Groves of the first kick return. “It hurt us, but I don’t think we were feeling down yet. We just needed something to pump us back up and get us back into it.”
Wright finished the game 27 of 41 for 243 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Delperdang, who came into the game having rushed for more than 1,300 yards, was held to 55 yards on 21 attempts. Deric Fitzgerald had 11 catches for 66 yards.
The SB-L defense shut out its first two playoff opponents -- Bishop Heelan (42-0) and Spencer (27-0) -- but that did not last long on Thursday night.
Western Dubuque opened the game by marching down the field on a nine-play drive that included a 20-yard pass from Harris to George. It was capped when Harris rushed six yards into the end zone. The Bobcats led 8-0 it with the two-point conversion.
“(George) is a good football player and we didn’t do a good job of tackling tonight and I think that was obvious,” said Smith.
Sergeant Bluff-Luton would respond when DeMoss gained six yards on a fourth-and-6 punt that saw him drop the snap before picking it up and rushing for the first down. Four plays later Wright hit Fitzgerald on a 59-yard pass down to the 4. Wright would find Groves on the touchdown pass to pull the Warriors within 8-6 with the blocked PAT attempt.
The Bobcats drove inside the 10 on their next drive but Cole Garrett picked off Harris with a one-handed interception to end the threat.
However, a three-and-out by the Warriors gave the Bobcats ball back with good field position that ended with George breaking three tackles on a reception of 20 yards to put his team up 14-6.
SB-L put together a strong drive late in the first half that saw it convert one fourth down but not the next as Delperdang slipped on fourth-and-3 on the 10-yard line.
Western Dubuque ran for 92 yards in the opening half but both teams finished the opening 24 minutes with 169 yards of total offense. The Bobcats finished with 150 yards on he ground as they will face the winner of the other semifinal between Lewis Central and Cedar Rapids Xavier next week.
The Warriors were making their fifth straight playoff appearance and first semifinal appearance since 2015 when SB-L fell to Norwalk 35-7. In Smith’s five seasons leading SB-L the Warriors are 45-12 overall.