Its offense did much of the heavy lifting Friday night, but when Omaha Creighton Prep needed a big play the most, it was its defense that came up with it.
Tenth-ranked Lincoln North Star came up empty on a trio of red zone trips on the night, the final one coming when the Gators fumbled at the Prep 9-yard line late in the game, securing a 34-28 victory for the Junior Jays in the first round of the Class A state football playoffs.
That capped a night in which the Junior Jay defense both gave up big plays and created some of its own.
“I guess it’s fortuitous that we were in the right place,” Prep coach Chris Nizzi said. “At some points our guys stepped up and made it happen, and that paid off for us.”
That was illustrated best on a sequence late in the second quarter, when Prep’s Nate Johnson returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown with less than 30 seconds remaining.
But the same defensive unit then allowed North Star to take the ball 63 yards in 22 seconds for a touchdown before the break.
After the teams combined for 28 points in the final 4:01 of the first half, the second half was dominated by defense.
The first possession after intermission ended after North Star had reached the Prep 13 but failed to convert on a fourth-down pass. The next time the Gators had the ball, they tied the game at 28 on a 22-yard pass from Maurice Moore to fellow receiver Noah Housh.
Prep answered on its ensuing possession, with quarterback Easton Stick capping a 10-play, 70-yard drive on a 1-yard sneak. It was his fourth score of the night after throwing for two TDs and running in another in the first half.
The extra-point kick was blocked, and it looked like that might come into play as North Star drove the field rather easily. On third-and-1 at the Prep 9, the Gators went with a quick handoff to fullback Trevor Birdzell — who hadn’t had a carry until that point — to try to catch the Junior Jays off guard.
But Birdzell was popped as he fought for the first down, fumbled the ball and Prep recovered.
“That’s the difference,” North Star coach Mark Waller said. “That was the story tonight. We can’t turn the ball over like that. Just can’t have those turnovers. Just unfortunate.”
An effective run game helped grind out the final 5½ minutes for the Junior Jays, the biggest play being a third-and-13 conversion from Stick to receiver RJ Urzendowski for 15 yards and a final first down.
“Just a comeback route,” Stick said. “He went a little deeper than the play is actually designed to make sure he got the first down. And that iced the game for us.
“That’s our guy, and everyone knows that. That’s who we trust, and that’s where I went. That’s something we’ve worked on together for countless hours, and we got it done when it mattered most.”
North Star’s Brooke Bolles threw for 259 yards (199 in the first half) and two touchdowns. Seven of those passes, and 151 yards, went to Moore.
Prep was paced by 140 yards on 27 carries by running back Doug Tsoka.
Prep’s ground game has “gotten better as the year’s gone on,” Nizzi said. “You can’t have a good enough running game.“
It was the first playoff win for Nizzi, who took over for legendary coach Tom Jaworski before last season. Nizzi said he couldn’t help but remember something his predecessor always said.
“I’m going to quote Coach Jaworski here: Survive and move on,” Nizzi said. “He’s a wise man, and we learned that from him. We’ve got to do some things better, but this is a great win for our kids.”
Lincoln North Star (7-3) .................. 7 14 7 0—28
Omaha Creighton Prep (7-3) .................. 7 21 0 6—34
CP: RJ Urzendowski 7 pass from Easton Stick (Nick Krone kick).
LNS: Austin Rose 12 run (kick blocked).
CP: Tre Graves 14 pass from Stick (Krone kick).
LNS: Nate Tederman 8 pass from Brook Bolles (Noah Housh pass from Bolles).
CP: Stick 2 run (Krone kick).
CP: Nate Johnson 89 interception return (Krone kick).
LNS: Housh 25 pass from Bolles (Alex Stodgill kick)
LNS: Housh 22 pass from Maurice Moore (Stodgill kick)
CP: Stick 1 run (kick blocked)
RUSHING: LNS, Austin Rose 19-103, Bryan Johnson 11-75, Maurice Moore 2-9, Brook Bolles 5-minus 3, Trevor Birdzell 1-0. CP, Doug Tsoka 27-140, Easton Stick 6-35, James Scott 1-3, RJ Urzendowski 1-minus 2, Tre Graves 2-3.
PASSING: LNS, Bolles 15-24-1 259, Moore 1-1-0 22. CP, Stick 14-17-0 162.
RECEIVING: LNS, Moore 7-151, Noah Housh 3-59, Nate Tederman 3-25, Rose 2-36, Zach Jackson 1-10. CP, Graves 3-39, Scott 2-33, Urzendowski 6-57, Tsoka 1-13, Kirk Kudlacz 1-12, Kevin Toner 1-8.
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