AMMON — Silence filled the room deep within Thunder Ridge High, where Jeff Marshall sat cross-legged, reflecting on the reasons his Titans had just dropped a 39-18 decision to Skyline Friday night. There were a few, to be sure. But the biggest one was obvious.
“I thought we were in pretty good shape before Tao got the cramps,” Marshall finally said.
Marshall was referencing a play midway through the third quarter, when senior quarterback Tao Johnson went down with a bad case of calf cramps, bad enough to sideline him for some 20 minutes.
At that point, Skyline held just a seven-point lead. As medical officials treated Johnson on the trainer’s table, though, the Grizzlies ballooned their lead with another score. When Johnson successfully petitioned coaches to re-enter the game, things turned even worse. Clearly hobbled, he threw two interceptions, the second a pick-six to Skyline defensive back Parker Kucera, the death knell for a Thunder Ridge team that looked lost without its star quarterback.
That’s how fast things changed Friday night. The Grizzlies never trailed — quarterback Lachlan Haacke completed 17 of 23 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns — but they had to sweat to defend Johnson, who racked up 12 carries for 133 yards and two scores. When he left, a nailbiter turned into a blowout.
“It was really unfortunate. It stunk to see him go down,” Haacke said. “Injuries happen. You have to adjust to that, and I think our defense did a great job.”
Skyline lost two uncharacteristic turnovers in the win, an interception from Haacke and a fumble from Abrahn Silverio, but the Grizzlies won because they dazzled otherwise. On their first play from scrimmage, Haacke completed an 80-yard touchdown pass to receiver Caden Taggart. Early in the second half, Haacke found Kenyon Sadiq for a 73-yard score. Skyline averaged 7.1 yards per carry in the second half.
The Grizzlies are still learning to adjust to the losses of players who made last season’s 4A state championship season possible, but it was hard to notice on Friday. In the third quarter, Haacke dropped back and threw what looked like a screen pass to Sadiq, who dropped the ball. Not a problem: He picked it back up and lofted it downfield to Silverio, who caught the pass and jogged untouched into the end zone.
Double-pass touchdowns are the spoils you enjoy when you roster players like Silverio, who Berger called the best athlete in the program — when Silverio was an eighth-grader.
“He wasn’t in our program and I told people he was the best athlete,” Skyline coach Scott Berger said.
Still, in some ways, Thunder Ridge was fortunate to head into halftime trailing by just one score, 19-12.
That’s because for all Skyline’s first-half fireworks — Haacke completed 12 of 15 passes for 195 yards, including that first-play bomb to Taggart — the Grizzlies also blew two chances at point-blank range.
In the first quarter, at the 2-yard line, Haacke took a shotgun snap and handed it off to Silverio, who fought his way into the end zone — only to fumble on his way to the ground. Thunder Ridge scooped it up and took over on the 20.
Then, in the final minute of the first half, Skyline was in the middle of a promising drive. The Grizzlies moved the ball all the way to the Titans’ 9, but that’s where Haacke threw an interception, right into the hands of Thunder Ridge defensive back Max Whitehouse.
“You don’t like to see those,” Berger said with a laugh. “Last week, we passed up on some scoring opportunities too. When it’s all said and done, when we can keep putting together drives, getting stops on defense, I like our team.”
But Johnson’s injury loomed so large because he made such a difference before it happened. Down 12-0 in the first quarter, the Titans scored when Johnson scrambled for a 29-yard touchdown, outrunning defenders on his way into the end zone. On their first drive of the second half, Johnson used a designed quarterback draw to sprint for six, crossing the plane with his arms wide, just like the way he won the 5A 100-meter dash state championship back in May.
“My mind switched to sprint mode,” Johnson said. “It just happened.”
That score trimmed Skyline’s lead to just 19-18. Confidence filled the Titans, who had just drawn within one of the defending 4A state champions.
On Thunder Ridge’s very next series, though, things unraveled. Johnson took a shotgun snap and darted to his left, but he only made it a yard before he crumpled to the ground, clutching his left leg. He remained on the ground for some five minutes. When he arose, trainers had to help Johnson, who couldn’t put any weight on his left leg. Hours earlier, on the opening kickoff, the Titans lost backup quarterback Tayvin Oswald to an ACL injury.
On the training table on the sideline, a trainer worked on stretching out Johnson’s leg. Officials tried to find pickle juice, which can relieve cramps. The eyes of a fandom gravitated toward Johnson, hoping he would find a way to return.
Before he could, Skyline had stretched its lead far too wide, made too many plays. Berger likes to say differences in these games come down to around 18 inches. Friday’s came down to a pair of calves.
SKYLINE 39, THUNDER RIDGE 18
Skyline 12 7 13 7 — 39
Thunder Ridge 6 6 6 0 — 18
S — Taggart 80 pass from Haacke (PAT no good), 11:41
S — Nottestad 31 pass from Haacke (2-pt no good), 2:47
TR — Johnson 29 run (PAT no good), 0:22
TR — Brizzee 8 pass from Johnson (PAT no good), 8:40
S — Taggart 13 pass from Haacke (PAT good), 3:19
TR — Johnson 21 run (2-pt no good), 8:16
S — Sadiq 73 pass from Haacke (2-pt no good), 6:31
S — Silverio 30 pass from Sadiq (PAT good), 1:35
S — Kucera 30 interception return (PAT good), 9:25
RUSHING — Skyline: Silverio 15-44, Taggart 3-13, Haacke 2-1, Galbreaith 1-2, Collins 1-6, Morgan 1-53. Thunder Ridge: Johnson 12-133, Sautter 14-37, Hall 1-4.
PASSING — Skyline: Haacke 17-23-4 298, Sadiq 1-1-1 30, Collins 0-2-0 0. Thunder Ridge: Johnson 7-21-1 121, Sautter 1-1-0 4.
RECEIVING — Skyline: Taggart 7-152, Sadiq 6-116, Nottestad 2-15, Silverio 1-6, Price 1-9. Thunder Ridge: Hall 1-10, E. Johnson 1-39, Brizzee 1-8, Sautter 2-45, Fitzgerald 2-19.