BLACKFOOT — Ten minutes after his Thunder Ridge club secured a 26-25 win over Blackfoot Friday night, Jeff Marshall wore a wide grin at midfield. Things were good: The Titans had just kicked off this new season with a road win, his quarterback threw for nearly 250 yards and his defense had just stuffed a go-ahead 2-point conversion attempt in the final two minutes.
Marshall hardly felt surprised at the outcome of the game. The way it ended shocked him.
“We weren’t expecting a run call,” Marshall said with a chuckle.
These Titans keep making progress, in part, because of the way they react to situations like the one that more or less decided Friday’s tilt.
In the final 90 seconds, Blackfoot quarterback Jaxon Grimmett dropped back, scanned the field, decided against making a pass. So he scrambled: Right around one defender, left around another until he angled toward the corner of the end zone, breaking the plane and falling out of bounds.
Before a raucous crowd that shook the venue with noise, the Broncos had whittled the Titans’ lead to 26-25, which meant they had a decision to make: Kick the extra point to tie the game — kicker Gavyn Cornell bisected the uprights on his team’s previous touchdown — or go for two and take the lead.
“We’re playing against a 5A team. We’re a 4A team,” Blackfoot coach Jerrod Ackley said. “Our kids had a lot of belief in the ability to score. It’s one of those games that we did a really good job of battling back in the game.”
The Broncos couldn’t battle all the way back. When they trotted their offense onto the field to go for two, Grimmett took a shotgun snap and handed it off to Jaren Samowitz, who couldn’t maneuver a yard before a swarm of Titans swallowed him up well short of the goal line. Grimmett slapped both hands on his helmet as he walked off the field. Considering the way the Broncos made up the deficit, he likely felt surprised too.
Grimmett tossed three touchdowns on the night, including a 70-yarder to Ja’Vonte King and a 33-yarder to Deegan Hale, but running back Austin Ramirez often carved up chunks of yardage to help put his team in scoring positions: 27 carries for 120 yards, including three rushes of 10-plus yards in the second half alone. For the game, Blackfoot averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Thunder Ridge rarely had an answer for Ramirez.
So even though Marshall expected the Broncos to try a pass on the two-point conversion attempt, Blackfoot coming up short on a run represented quite the shock.
“I didn’t have a great angle on it, but it looked like we had some penetration on the defensive line,” Ackley said. “I have to look at the film, especially with the formation we were running. It was kind of hard to see where exactly the breakdown was.”
For Blackfoot, the play may have been the offense’s last of the game, but the hosts dropped their season-opener for other reasons too.
Most importantly, Thunder Ridge had few issues on offense, particularly in the second half. Quarterback Tao Johnson completed 17 of 29 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown, but he also logged 10 carries for 70 yards, including what turned into the game-winning touchdown with 5:43 to play: On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Johnson unfurled a naked bootleg action and jogged untouched into the end zone, good for a 26-19 lead.
The Titans also won because Johnson had weapons to work with on offense. In the third quarter, Johnson dropped back and zipped a 20-yard pass downfield to Paul Fitzgerald — all 6-foot-4, 245 pounds of the Utah State commit — who shook off a Blackfoot defensive back and cruised into the end zone. The 60-yard touchdown connection pushed Thunder Ridge’s lead to 20-6.
“We both just decided that we’re two of the best athletes in the state. We’re not going to let anybody stop us,” Johnson said. “So the connection was there, and we were just rolling all night long.”
But it wasn’t just Johnson and Fitzgerald. It was Johnson and all his receivers: Ryan Johnson caught two passes for 20 yards. Zak Hanson snared two for 25. Porter Brizzee snagged five for 44. Fitzgerald racked up the big numbers, three receptions for 99 yards and a score, but the Titans spread things out and hardly missed a beat when they did.
Plus, Thunder Ridge defensive backs Conner Hall and Max Whitehouse recorded interceptions, which will help the Titans head into Week 2 — a home matchup with 4A power Skyline next Friday — on an even more promising trajectory.
The year Thunder Ridge’s school opened, in 2018, the Titans went winless. The next year, they recorded one win. The next, they went 5-5 and earned a spot in the 5A state playoffs. Whether they can keep making progress remains to be seen. It helps when you kick off the season with a last-second win that infuses confidence in every member of the team.
“I think it helps set the tone,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to be easy. We got the dub, but it was a hard one, so it keeps us working. Nothing’s given.”
THUNDER RIDGE 26, BLACKFOOT 25
Thunder Ridge 6 8 8 6 — 26
Blackfoot 6 0 6 13 — 25
TR — Johnson 1 run (extra point blocked), 6:38
BF — King 70 pass from Grimmett (PAT no good), 6:23
TR — Sautter 1 run (Fitzgerald pass from Johnson), 1:51
TR — Fitzgerald 60 pass from Johnson (2-pt no good), 9:02
BF — Hale 33 pass from Grimmett (2-pt no good), 4:00
BF — King 7 pass from Johnson (Cornell PAT good), 10:45
TR — Johnson 2 run (2-pt no good), 5:43
BF — Grimmett 7 run (2-pt no good), 1:20
RUSHING — Thunder Ridge: Johnson 10-70, Sautter 11-36, Brizzee 2 (-1) // Blackfoot: Grimmett 6-31, Ramirez 27-120, Capson 1-2.
PASSING — Thunder Ridge: Johnson 17-29-2 245 // Blackfoot: Grimmett 12-18-3 209.
RECEIVING — Thunder Ridge: R. Johnson 2-20, Hanson 2-25, Storer 1-26, E. Johnson 2-19, Brizzee 5-44, Sautter 2-12, Fitzgerald 3-99 // Blackfoot: King 3-89, Hale 7-103, Moore 2-7.