AURORA — Aurora’s switch from a wide-open passcentric offense to a power running attack gets a firm stamp of approval from Eli Bricker.
As the Huskies’ fullback, that’s no surprise.
But Friday’s Class B first-round playoff game against Northwest also showed how nice a fit Bricker is to a power attack.
The 205-pound junior rushed for 132 yards on 18 carries, including the go-ahead touchdown with 9:37 left, to lead the No. 10-rated Huskies (8-2) to a 23-20 win.
That avenged a 54-0 loss to the Vikings (6-4) on the same field just three weeks ago.
It was that humiliation that led to Aurora pushing the reset button on its offense.
“We just came together as a team and we played every day in practice as hard as we could,” Bricker said. “We pulled together. We changed our offensive philosophy. It was awesome.
“We play smashmouth football now, and I love it.”
The turnaround brought back memories of 2008 when Aurora suffered a big loss to McCook in the regular season, revamped its offense and then defeated the Bison in the playoff rematch.
This was a more back-to-basics offensive switch, and it produced 327 yards on 63 carries with Aurora grinding out 26 first downs. Brock Reichardt also rushed for over 100 yards (105 on 22 carries), while quarterback Troy McDonald wasn’t far behind with 82 yards on 17 carries.
“That starts with the guys up front, the offensive line,” Aurora coach Randy Huebert said. “We got some things going there with Bricker running the football.
“I’m pleased with the effort of the kids, the determination we showed and the resiliency we showed. I’ve got a lot of respect for Northwest and coach (Kevin) Stein and what they’re doing over there. They played hard tonight, and we were fortunate to get the ‘W.’”
Aurora’s ground game simply kept the ball away from the Vikings in the second half. The Huskies won the time of possession by a ridiculous 20:16-3:44 margin after halftime.
None of the four second-half possessions by the Vikings lasted longer than 1:09.
“They had the ball the entire second half,” Stein said. “They ran the ball extremely well. It was two teams that battled hard. They had some injuries, we had some injuries. Every kid out there gave everything they could.
“They came up and made some plays in the second half. Hats off to them.”
Aurora took a 15-14 lead into the second half, but its first possession ended badly. After a drive stalled at midfield, Ben McQuiston took the snap in punt formation but rolled to his right, looking for an open receiver.
Finding none, he tried to punt, but it was blocked and Northwest took over on the Huskies’ 42-yard line.
Running back Cole Leaman took a direct snap and scored from 19 yards out to put the Vikings up 20-15 with 7:49 left in the third.
Then came the possession that decided the game. Aurora plodded 76 yards in 22 plays to take the lead while consuming 10:04 off the clock.
The Huskies converted on three fourth-and-1 plays on the drive, and Bricker took the ball in from 1-yard out with 9:37 remaining.
Ben McQuiston hit Alex Hunt for the two-point conversion and a 23-20 lead.
“Our line — everything goes to the line,” Bricker said. “They just didn’t let up an inch. They were great. That’s the heart of our team.”
The Aurora defense forced two straight three-and-outs, while Bricker and the running attack kept the clock winding closer to 0:00 when the Huskies had the ball.
“It’s important to sustain drives and Reichardt and Bricker can get things done,” Huebert said. “They run north and south, and Troy did a good job running the offense.
“It’s a little bit old school, but I was pleased to get those first downs. That moves the chains and that leads to touchdowns.”
Aurora stays alive despite giving up 68 unanswered points to Northwest this season.
The Vikings jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The Vikings survived two fumbles on the opening possession and stuck to the ground themselves to drive 67 yards and go up 7-0 on Kyle Bockmann’s 2-yard touchdown.
The Huskies headed the other way, but Leaman picked off a pass at the 10-yard line and returned it to the Aurora 26.
Five plays later, Northwest quarterback Zach Rouzee kept the ball on an option and went around the left side untouched to make it 14-0 with 1:01 left in the first.
But there was no panic from the Huskies.
“That was nothing we haven’t seen before so we just kept in it and we just played,” Bricker said.
Huebert agreed: “We were fine. We were behind last week (against York). We just wanted to keep our composure and poise and keep playing one play at a time. It’s all that you can do.
“Our seniors were very motivated and doing a great job leading our football team.”
McDonald scored on a 1-yard QB sneak to pull the Huskies within 14-7 with 10:00 remaining in the first half.
Then Bricker came up with a big play, this time on defense.
The Vikings drove and had first-and-goal from the 12-yard line after an illegal procedure penalty. But Bricker brought in a tipped pass for an interception at the 1-yard line, and a facemask penalty gave the Huskies some breathing room out of the shadow of the end zone.
“We started out the way we wanted to start, and then we had an opportunity to drive a little nail in there and go up again by two scores,” Stein said. “They came up with that interception. That hurt, but one play doesn’t break the game.
“I just think they came out and hammered the ball. Bricker ran amazing. He was a beast tonight, and he was a difference maker.”
Huebert also pointed at the interception as a big play.
“The interception by Bricker at the 1 was a big stop for us,” he said. “I think things turned around after that.”
The Huskies then drove 80 yards in nine plays with McDonald scoring on his second 1-yard quarterback sneak of the quarter. Cole Ashby ran in the conversion to put Aurora up 15-14.
After that, Northwest’s offense could only convert once with a short field after the blocked punt.
Two teams that lit up scoreboards with their air attacks earlier this season combined for 125 yards passing. Rouzee was 6-for-16 for 76 yards with two interceptions. Bockmann rushed for 117 yards on 21 carries, but only 32 of those yards came after halftime.
“We were lined up in a way they didn’t want to throw the ball as much,” Huebert said. “We were tempting them to run the ball, and they were running it. We just had to settle in and get a feel for that running game of theirs and make sure we don’t penetrate up the field too far because then they’re going to open up gaps.
“I think our kids adjusted to that as the game went on and settled in and played much better defense.”
In its first playoff appearance in eight years, Northwest couldn’t come up with the school’s first postseason victory since 1987.
It was a disappointing end for a senior-filled Northwest lineup that produced a breakthrough season for a program that had struggled through a string of 2-7 seasons.
“I’m proud of them,” Stein said. “These guys are the difference makers. They were the ones that set the tone in the offseason. They were the ones that set the tone in the preseason. They fought to the end, and it’s just a tough pill to swallow.”
Aurora, which has now won six straight first-round playoff games, travels to No. 1 Beatrice (10-0) next Friday.
Northwest (6-4)..............................14 0 6 0—20
Aurora (8-2)........................0 15 0 8—23
NW—Bockmann 2 run (Bachle kick), 7:18.
NW—Rouzee 10 run (Bachle kick), 1:01.
A—McDonald 1 run (McQuiston kick), 10:00.
A—McDonald 1 run (Ashby run), 5:42.
NW—Leaman 19 run (run failed), 7:49.
A—Bricker 1 run (Hunt pass from McQuiston), 9:37.
First downs 14 26
Rushes-yards 29-169 63-327
Passing yards 76 49
Comp-Att-Int 6-16-2 9-12-1
Punts-avg. 3-31.3 3-20.0
Punt returns 0-0 0-0
Kickoff returns 4-71 4-77
Penalties-yards 8-74 7-64
Fumbles-lost 3-0 1-0
RUSHING—NW, Bockmann 21-117, Leaman 5-37, Rouzee 3-15. A, Bricvker 18-132, Reichardt 22-104, McDonald 17-82, Geiger 5-10, TEAM 1-(minus 2).
PASSING—NW, Rouzee 6-16-2 76. A, McDonald 6-8-1 20, Standage 2-2-0 10, McQuiston 1-1-0 19, Reichardt 0-1-0 0.
RECEIVING—NW, Kraft 4-66, Havranek 1-9, Larsen 1-1. A, McQuiston 5-23, Ashby 2-30, Bricker 2-(minus 4).