POCATELLO — For all the hype about Rigby and Highland being two of the top teams in the state, the matchup between the two East Idaho powers Friday night at Iron Horse Stadium swung not on great plays, touchdowns and tackles, but mostly on mistakes.
The Trojans bungled an end-of-half situation to go into halftime down 14-7, but two crucial Highland errors on special teams helped Rigby score 21 straight points to open the second half to take a 28-20 win and the District 5-6 title.
Just minutes after Rigby tied the game at 14 midway through the third quarter, Highland's Raimon Barela bobbled a punt and Rigby recovered at the Rams' 7-yard line, leading to an easy touchdown and a 20-14 lead for the visitors — a headsnappingly quick turnaround from a first half Highland dominated.
On the ensuing kickoff, Highland returner Jaxon Shuman dropped the ball out of bounds at the 5, and although it wasn't as immediately costly as the muffed punt, the field position reversal eventually led to another Rigby touchdown and a 28-14 lead with fewer then six minutes remaining, all but putting the game away.
"We weren't sharp," Highland coach Gino Mariani said. "They were better than us. … We were just not taking care of the ball. The punt return where we fumbled that, that's kind of tough. When they got up two touchdowns, that's kind of tough to recover from."
That sequence defined the game, but Highland's special teams misadventures were far from the only unforced errors in a matchup between two of the top programs in Idaho.
Highland and Rigby had combined to win two of the last three 5A state championships, with the Rams winning in 2017 and the Trojans triumphing last year — and both are looking for another in 2020.
Coming into the game, neither had lost to an Idaho team, with Rigby 6-0 and ranked second in the 5A media poll and Highland 6-1 and ranked fourth.
"To come in here and get a win for the district championship, it feels great," Rigby wide receiver Taylor Freeman said. "Especially against a team like Highland. They're a great team, great players and a great program, so it feels even better to get the win here."
The Trojans led 7-0 early on a short Zheik Falevai touchdown run after the first big mistake of the game, a Highland facemask penalty on a punt return, gave them the ball on the Rams' 30-yard line to start their first drive, but Highland dominated the rest of the first half.
It started up front for the Rams on both sides of the ball.
After the first touchdown drive, Highland held Rigby to 37 yards and two first downs in the rest of the first half, bottling up the Trojans' run game and sacking touted quarterback Tiger Adolpho twice.
On offense, Rams quarterback Easton Durham often had plenty of time to throw, and running back Kaleb Demuzio followed his roadgraders to 77 yards in the first half alone.
Although a dropped would-be touchdown and a missed field goal — see the mistakes piling up? — cost Highland one chance to score, Durham scrambled for a 22-yard touchdown on a bootleg to tie the game at 7 late in the second quarter.
Then came Rigby's big blunder. With under a minute left until halftime, the Trojans tried a rollout, rugby-style punt on fourth-and-15 from their own 15.
Highland's Mason Fullmer blocked the kick, the Rams recovered on the 4-yard line and Demuzio scored on the very next play for a 14-7 lead at the break.
"That was a bad call by me," Rigby coach Armando Gonzalez said. "I figured they were going to get good field position no matter what, because we were punting into the wind. We were trying to rugby kick and buy a little time for our coverage to get down, but we just missed a block. We probably shouldn't have called it in that situation, looking back, but I learned my lesson there."
But coming out of halftime, the Rams seemed determined to return the favor they had gotten in the first half — with interest.
First, the Trojans tied it on a 70-yard catch and run by Freeman as the two Highland defenders closest to him got tangled up and missed the tackle.
Then came the muffed punt and the dropped kickoff.
Rigby, not unexpectedly as one of the best teams in the state, took advantage, with Falevai scoring from 7 yards out for his second touchdown after the muffed punt.
"(Highland) started by bringing a little pressure off the edges and with their outside linebackers, so we adjusted some of our calls," Gonzalez said. "By our formations, they were able to line up and do certain things, and we changed some of those formations so they couldn't do that. We'd go unbalanced so it was harder for them to bring edge pressure, because now you're dealing with three, four guys on one side."
Highland actually managed to put a drive together after starting at its own 5-yard line on the kickoff, but the Rams turned the ball over on downs at the Rigby 45.
The Trojans then converted three third downs on their ensuing touchdown drive, including a third and 9 and a third and 5, the latter with Freeman catching a 26-yard touchdown pass for his second score.
Highland scored a late touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Durham to Jack Whitmer, but Freeman recovered an onside kick with just over a minute left to seal the game for Rigby.
The Trojans gained 184 of their 251 total yards after halftime — and that includes two kneeldowns to end the game. The Rams gained 146 of their 295 total yards after halftime, but 62 of those came on their final drive with the game all but decided.
"We were getting physically outplayed in the first half, plain and simple," Gonzalez said. "I told the kids (at halftime), you played a great game last year against (Highland), won the district against them, but they're a great program for a reason. When you want to consistently beat teams like that, you have to come out and have your best effort.
"I think we were able to capitalize on it and get those touchdowns in the third quarter and bring us back into that game."
With the win, the Trojans moved to 7-0 (3-0). No matter what their result is next week against Madison, they'll be the district champions.
Highland fell to 6-2 (2-1). The Rams travel to Idaho Falls next week.
RIGBY 28, HIGHLAND 20
R 7 0 13 8 — 28
HL 0 14 0 6 — 20
R — Zheik Falevai 1 run (Trey Saathoff kick), 6:15
HL — Easton Durham 22 run (Ian Hershey kick), 4:43
HL — Kaleb Demuzio 4 run (Hershey kick), 0:37.6
R — Taylor Freeman 70 pass from Tiger Adolpho (Saathoff kick), 6:35
R — Falavai 7 run (kick missed), 2:43
R — Freeman 26 pass from Adolpho (Freeman pass from Adolpho), 5:43
HL — Jack Whitmer 9 pass from Durham (kick missed), 1:09
Passing — Rigby: Adolpho 7-13-127-2-0. Highland: Durham 16-26-145-1-1.
Rushing — Rigby: Falavai 18-85-2, Gabe Mobley 5-36, Adolpho 15-3. Highland: Demuzio 19-91-1, Durham 10-54-1, Jaxon Shuman 1-5, Raimon Barela 1-0.
Receiving — Rigby: Freeman 4-104-2, Con Dansie 1-11, Falevai 1-8, Colton Edwards 1-5. Highland: Shuman 7-45, Mason Mickelsen 2-35, Whitmer 2-31-1, Demuzio 3-23, Josh Newton 1-8, Barela 1-3.