POCATELLO — With every minute that passed across an hour and a half, Sugar-Salem’s long road to a fourth straight promised land appeared destined for an unceremonious end. The Diggers looked flat on offense and slow on defense. They lagged behind Marsh Valley in just about every important department in this 3A state quarterfinal.

It was uncharacteristic for Sugar-Salem, but more importantly, the walls were closing in. The road, it seemed, was only constructed to cover three straight championships. Progress on a fourth looked to stall when the Diggers headed into halftime trailing 9-0, staring winter in the eyes.

“We were just out of rhythm,” Sugar-Salem coach Tyler Richins said. “Out of rhythm, out of sync.”

Sugar-Salem, though, moved on in these playoffs by extending the road one chunk further.

Down two scores in the third quarter, the Diggers turned a fake punt into a touchdown, morphed a failed punt into another touchdown and added one more score for insurance, securing a 22-16 win over Marsh Valley in a staggering turnaround Thursday night at Holt Arena.

For the win, Sugar-Salem moves on to the 3A quarterfinals, good for a matchup with the winner of South Fremont and Homedale, who play Saturday afternoon.

“At this point in the season, you just feel fortunate to get out of the game with a win,” Richins said. “We’ll go back and evaluate film and our performance and things, but today we’re just happy that we get to live to fight another day.”

For Sugar-Salem, this result was lots of things: Surprising but not shocking, a thriller but not a stunner. For so long Thursday night, this team looked lifeless on offense. But in August, the Diggers set out to win their fourth straight state championship, so only a fool would count them out at any point — even after they dropped their first two games of the season.

That’s why, for as sluggish as Sugar-Salem looked to kick this contest off, a loss was never certain, especially not considering the club downed Marsh Valley once earlier this season.

The game swung in the third quarter, when Marsh Valley decided to fake a punt in its own territory. Michael Belnap needed seven yards. He got six. A restless armada of blue-clad fans unleashed primal screams. Sugar-Salem took over at the Marsh Valley 40.

First, quarterback Daniel Neal completed a 33-yard pass to Cooper Butikofer. Then Carson Harris zipped seven yards into the end zone. In just two plays, Sugar-Salem turned a fake punt into a touchdown, and before you had a chance to digest what had just unfolded, the Diggers were squarely in the game.

“That drive was super important,” said Harris, who carried 12 times for 101 yards and all three scores. “We talked about it at halftime. We were going to go down, and if we could get a score on the board, then it was going to turn the game around. At that seven yard line, all I was thinking was ‘Get into the end zone.’”

Harris did it again minutes later. On the ensuing series, the Diggers capitalized on another Eagle mistake. Marsh Valley set up for a punt, but the snap sailed over the punter’s head, and the Eagles had to fall on it — right at their own five-yard line. The lead Marsh Valley had built was withering away before its eyes.

Sugar-Salem reduced it to ashes in one play. Neal handed the ball off to Harris, who sprinted five yards into the end zone. The Diggers took a 14-9 lead.

If only that concluded the drama. On the drive after that, Marsh Valley went back to punt, only this one covered some 20 yards. Another short punt. Another short field for Sugar-Salem. This time, Harris punctuated a 24-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown jaunt, ballooning the Diggers’ lead to 22-9, thanks to a two-point conversion.

Sugar-Salem was never quite out of the woods, though. The Diggers forced the Eagles to punt on their next series. But when the hosts got the ball back, Neal was strip-sacked by Bradley Belnap, who raced some 40 yards the other way, setting up Marsh Valley at the Sugar-Salem 17.

That’s where, after a few plays, the Eagles used a 21-yard strike from quarterback Hunter Roche to Belnap to draw within 22-16 with a shade over five minutes to play.

The theater paled in comparison to the first half, which was all Marsh Valley.

For Sugar-Salem, the first half was all sorts of uncharacteristic. The Diggers’ prolific ground game couldn’t get started. It never scored. Even the team’s defense, which delivered a commendable performance considering the circumstances, got dinged for a couple long passes.

One, from Roche to receiver Payton Howe, covered 41 yards. That put the Eagles in field goal range, and Brad Belnap connected on a 36-yarder.

Sugar-Salem’s offense, meanwhile, trudged through mud. Cooper Porter reeled off a run of 41 yards and another of 14, but outside of that, the Diggers’ longest rush covered four yards. Through the air, Neal didn’t complete consecutive passes until he absolutely had to — when the Diggers got the ball back inside of a minute left.

Even that drive ended without points, though. Kicker Ricardo Contreras misfired on a long field goal attempt as the clock expired, sending Sugar-Salem into halftime without points.

“I would say mistakes in our play-calling, mistakes in executing the offense,” Richins said. “Football is one of those things where rhythm is really nice.”

The Diggers are moving on because they found theirs.

SUGAR-SALEM 22, MARSH VALLEY 16

Marsh Valley 0 9 0 7 — 16

Sugar-Salem 0 0 7 15 — 22

Scoring summary

Second quarter

MV — Roche 1 rush (PAT no good), 11:56

MV — B. Belnap 36-yard FG, 0:51

Third quarter

SS — C. Harris 7 rush (PAT good), 2:23

SS — C. Harris 5 rush (PAT good), 0:25

Fourth quarter

SS — Harris 5 rush (PAT good), 9:00

MV — Bry. Belnap 21 pass from Roche (PAT good), 5:07

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING — Marsh Valley: Bra. Belnap 6-18, M. Belnap 11-31, Roche 6 (-14), Howe 2 (-11). Sugar-Salem: Neal 5-13, W. Harris 8-43, C. Harris 12-101, R. Harris 1-4, Porter 1-2.

PASSING — Marsh Valley: Roche 11-24-1 188. Sugar-Salem: Neal 9-21-0 131.

RECEIVING — Marsh Valley: Howe 6-109, Bry. Belnap 3-50, M. Belnap 1-13, Vaughn 1-16. Sugar-Salem: Porter 3-38, Butikofer 3-61, Hirrlinger 3-31.

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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