POCATELLO — The cadre of Firth coaches looked around at each other. They shuffled their feet, exchanged empty looks, held their arms out. What just happened? They didn’t say much, not after their Cougars fell behind West Side one minute after this 2A state championship game began. On the sideline at Holt Arena, they looked like they had seen ghosts.

At 9:22 p.m., one minute after kickoff, Firth already had questions to ask itself. How did the Cougars let West Side score on the first play from scrimmage? How did they blow coverage on an inside handoff play, letting it go for 70 yards and a touchdown? How would they manage the game now, trailing before they could touch the ball?

If Firth coaches found the answers, they did so far too late to prevent a 33-13 loss to West Side Thursday night, the second straight year the Cougars’ season ended in a championship game loss to the Pirates. In truth, they spent most of the game finding more questions to ponder, more issues to solve. Interceptions. Fumbles. More blown coverages.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Firth coach Jordan Bartlett said, “that you just can’t come back from.”

For the Cougars, it may have been uncharacteristic, but not against the Pirates. With the win, West Side set a state record with its third straight state championship, the program’s 32nd straight victory. This is what the Pirates do: force turnovers, rack up rushing yards, make you uncomfortable.

Firth found out when its Ferrari offense never revved to life. Quarterback Gage Vasquez completed just three passes in the first half. He was also responsible for the Cougars’ longest rush of the first stanza, which covered eight yards. Running back Sam Park totaled 12 carries for 30 yards. Burton Park registered four carries for two yards. The club lost two turnovers, one fumble and one interception.

For that, you can thank West Side’s cover 0 defense, at least in large part. Since Oct. 22, the day Firth dropped a 22-21 regular-season finale to North Fremont, opponents noticed something about the Cougars: They struggle against blitzes. So all four teams Firth faced in these playoffs — Aberdeen, Declo, North Fremont and West Side — rolled out the same looks, playing almost exclusively man coverage, bringing pressure on most plays.

“It has to be quick routes,” Bartlett said. “It has to be us taking shots, saying, ‘Our athlete is better than yours. We’re going to make it a track race.’ Until we get that confidence and being able to do that, that is a good blueprint to cover us.”

It amounted to a giant thud for Firth, but the reality is this club can handle lackluster offensive showings. In fact, that’s how the Cougars won their last two playoff games, grinding out low-scoring wins over Declo and North Fremont. In those games, though, they kept things close by smothering foes on defense.

The difference on Thursday was the way the Cougars let the Pirates run wild on offense. West Side dinged Firth for the most points the Cougars allowed all season, even more than the first time these teams met this year, a season-opening overtime thriller. The Pirates scored however they liked: through the air, where quarterback Blaize Brown completed touchdown passes of 32 and 89 yards, and on the ground, where Brokens joined tailbacks Parker Moser and Parker Henderson in thrashing the Firth defense.

It represented the most points the Cougars had surrendered in nearly a full calendar year, dating back to last season’s state championship game, which West Side won in a 39-0 blowout over Firth. Compounding the problem: Junior Alex Vasquez, a crucial two-way player, was playing five weeks removed from fracturing his fibula.

For their parts, the Cougars found ways to stay composed, even after they let that game-opening play go for six. Their poker faces slipped early in the third frame, when Vasquez tossed a pick six, which handed West Side a 26-7 lead.

“I saw some kids, rightfully, just like, ugh,” Bartlett said.

On Thursday, all the advantages the Cougars figured they had turned to dust. All season, they built an identity behind their ground game, churning out hundreds of yards per game through playmakers like Gage and Alex Vasquez, Sam and Burton Park, even receivers like Austin Jacobsen. Those didn’t pan out. They also figured playing here at Holt, where temperatures can rise under the lights, could be a boon — especially since West Side had never played at the arena.

If that worked to Firth’s advantage, it never surfaced, not after the Pirates scored on their first play from scrimmage. “They were kind of gassed out,” Bartlett said, “but they had done such a good job early that they were able to hang on.”

All of which leaves Firth in a tricky spot: How does the club square a season that featured so many successes with a finale that included so many failures? For Bartlett, it starts with the seniors, the group of kids who were eighth graders when he joined Firth, both as a football coach and a science teacher.

“I love them,” Bartlett said. “They’re amazing.”

Then he offered a sigh of disappointment, the kind of noise that communicates a mixture of enthusiasm and regret. It was clear how much this group means to him. He stared across the turf, across the arena, across the place where this journey had ended one milestone short. The one hurdle you can’t clear always hurts the most.

“I feel like we came up a little short for them,” Bartlett said.

Greg Woods is a sports reporter at the Post Register. Reach him 208-542-6772 and follow him on Twitter at GregWWoods.

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