First, the opening kickoff is returned 95 yards for a touchdown. Then, the defense yields a 70-yard scoring drive for another touchdown.
That left the third-ranked Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks in a 14-0 hole, after the offense had only run five plays. This didn’t look like the scenario that would propel the Nighthawks into their third straight state semi-final game.
“They jumped out front,” said Nighthawks’ quarterback Tyler Williams. “We had to rally from behind. I tried to encourage the guys.”
The Nighthawks turned it around though, finding their second wind in the second quarter when they scored three touchdowns and trimmed their deficit to 24-22, en route to a 42-30 win over visiting Glendale Apollo in the second round of the Division II playoffs.
“I warned them at this level that guys can get behind early,” said Nighthawks coach Matt Johnson.
After trailing early, the Nighthawks relied on their bread-and-butter, the running of Williams and the power running of Anthony Braunreiter.
Jake Vartanian broke off a 14-yard run, which set up Braunreiter’s four-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion attempt with holder Tyler Berson connecting with Scott Simmons to cut the gap to 14-8.
This would not be the end of the Nighthawks’ offense though. Another touchdown and a field goal kept up the offensive pressure. Meanwhile, Braunreiter added another touchdown in the second.
It appeared the Nighthawks would go to the locker room trailing 24-15 at the half, but with 1:07 left, a kick was returned near mid-field, setting the Nighthawks up for another attempt on offense.
Vartanian capitalized, breaking a 19-yard run and a personal foul set up Ironwood at the 11-yard line. With nine seconds left, Williams ran left for a touchdown. With Nathan Farmer’s extra point conversion, the Nighthawks trailed 24-22 at halftime.
“The drive at the end of the first half was pretty important,” Johnson said.
In the second half, the offense became unstoppable. A 60-yard scoring drive was capped off by a 4-yard touchdown run by Williams, which gave the Nighthawks their first lead of the game at 29-24. A 69-yard drive ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Simmons for a 35-24 lead with 4:27 remaining in the third.
“Once we got going, we knew we could have success,” Williams said. “The offensive line and the wide receivers were blocking well. Me and (Braunreiter) made plays.”
Williams finished with 131 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 22 carries. Braunreiter had 207 yards on 26 carries to go along with two touchdowns. Vartanian provided a third running threat with 61 yards.
Williams also completed eight of 10 passes for 75 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Jake Matthews caught three passes for 23 yards.
The Nighthawks provided plenty of competition, as a team that came into the game with only one loss themselves and averaged more than 40 points a game with a prolific passing attack.
“We faced a lot of adversity,” Braunreiter said. “Apollo came out and surprised us.”
“The offensive line did a great job the whole game.”
Now, the third-ranked Nighthawks will face the second-seeded Marcos De Niza on Friday night at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert.
Johnson said there is work to be done before Friday’s game, and the team has to cut down on their mistakes.
The top four seeds in Division II all advanced. In the other semi-final game, the top-ranked Salpointe Lancers will play fourth seed Centennial at Amphitheater High School.