Gritty, defensive effort sends Chatfield back to Class AA state title game
The Gophers' defense held Eden Valley-Watkins to 2-of-7 on fourth downs and stopped five drives in their own territory, while Sam Backer and the offense did just enough to send Chatfield back to the Class AA championship.
MINNEAPOLIS — With the score tied 12-12 and Eden Valley-Watkins set to go for its sixth fourth-down opportunity of the game deep in its own territory, the Chatfield defense knew this was it.
With fewer than 9 minutes remaining in Friday's Class AA football state semifinal game, a stop on fourth-and-1 would give the ball back to Sam Backer and a Chatfield offense that would be in perfect position for a potential go-ahead score. But a first down by the Eagles would put them in the driver's seat.
The Gophers just needed to stand tall once more on fourth down.
They did just that as Drew O'Connor fended off a pair of blockers before slamming EV-W quarterback Nolan Geislinger for a loss of 2 yards.
Two plays later, Backer found Luke Carrier, who made a juggling grab for a 2-yard touchdown reception to give the Gophers a lead with 8:40 left. It's a lead they didn't relinquish, as Chatfield will now have the opportunity to defend its state title after a gritty 27-12 victory against Eden Valley-Watkins at U.S. Bank Stadium.
It's the 25th consecutive victory for the Gophers, who will now go for back-to-back state titles against Barnesville (11-0) at 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2. It's a rematch of last year's Class AA semifinal — a 22-18 Chatfield win.
"We had some huge fourth-down stops," Chatfield coach Jeff Johnson said. "We didn't make great plays all game long, but when it counted ... when they got down in the red zone or on fourth down, we really stepped up and we made plays. I'm proud of the guys for that. ... Credit to Eden Valley-Watkins, they are a good football program."
All season long, the Chatfield defense operated on the motto "bend but don't break."
The Gophers took it to a new level on Friday.
Four promising Eden Valley-Watkins drives ended in turnovers on downs, all of them in Gophers territory.
That included one to end the first half when the Eagles had a fourth-and-goal inside the 1-yard line with fewer than 45 seconds left and the Gophers leading 12-6.
It appeared EV-W quarterback Geislinger had a lane off-tackle, but Luke Carrier was able to get penetration and bring him down just short of the goal line to provide a game-changing play heading into the half.
"That play changed momentum," Johnson said. "Stopping them, selling out. We thought they were going through the 'A' gap and they didn't. They went around tackle and Luke got some penetration and made a great play."
However, the Eagles quickly regained momentum, forcing a Chatfield punt on the opening possession of the second half, before using a little trickery to reach the end zone.
Geislinger tossed the ball to Wyatt Moehrle for what looked like a bubble screen, but Moehrle held up and threw to a wide-open Landon Neiman for a 58-yard touchdown that tied the score at 12-12 midway through the third quarter.
It was the second time the Eagles had taken their opening drive of a half down the field.
Suddenly, it was a tie game and the Gophers offense was having a hard time stringing drives together.
The strong front and impressive overall defensive speed from EV-W kept the high-flying Backer and the Gophers relatively at bay for the majority of the game.
In fact, for the game, EV-W outgained Chatfield 338-247.
"That defensive front is awesome," Johnson said. "There was a stalemate on that line of scrimmage for most of the game. They really extended the plays on us and kept Sam contained for the most part."
But every time the Eagles offense looked like it was going to take control, the Chatfield defense was able to batten down the hatches and make a perfectly timed play.
Likley the biggest of all happened when EV-W decided to go for it on its own 29-yard line with less than 9:30 to play. It was a move that EV-W coach Adam Tri never second-guessed.
"We're a pretty aggressive team; we were aggressive all year," Tri said. "I have faith in my guys to get a yard. And we just didn't get it this time. I have the utmost confidence in my guys to get that yard and we just didn't get that play. That's the way it goes."
The decision came as no surprise to the Gophers, either. Chatfield did not even work on punt return all week after watching EV-W go for it on fourth down at its own 13 in its section final.
On that day, the Eagles broke a 40-yard run to convert a fourth down and keep their season alive. But Friday, a great play by O'Connor, who sliced through the offensive line to swallow Geislinger, gave the ball back to the Gophers.
Two plays later, Carrier made a juggling catch on a bubble screen from Backer for a 2-yard TD. His run on the 2-point conversion made it 20-12.
The Chatfield defense forced another turnover on downs on the ensuing EV-W drive. The Eagles were just 2-of-7 on fourth down and 3-of-11 on third down.
The Chatfield offense responded with a 13-play, 49-yard drive that took 6:33 off the clock before Backer capped it off with a 1-yard plunge for his second rushing touchdown with just more than 2 minutes remaining. He finished with 150 yards rushing on 30 carries, while completing 7 of 9 passes for 55 yards and two touchdowns.
Minnesota's second all-time leading rusher will need 309 yards in the state championship game to pass all-time leader Tyler Evans of McLeod West (7,503) to give him the record
Backer will have that opportunity on Friday, Dec. 2, as the Gophers go for their second consecutive state title against Barnesville — the team Backer was disqualified against after two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties last year in the state semifinals. He subsequently had to miss the ensuing title game that Chatfield won.
The chance to be back out there puts a little extra juice into Backer.
"I wanted to win this one because I didn't get to play last year in the state final," Backer said. "So it makes me more hyped going into it. I'm going to be on the field this time, not on the sideline, pretty excited. To get to this point, I don't even think about stats or anything. I just want that state championship. I want to win it this year with my friends on the field."
Chatfield 27, Eden Valley-Watkins 12
Eden Valley-Watkins 6-0-6-0—12
EVW — Nolan Geislinger 1 run (pass failed) 9:58
CH — Cole Johnson 10 pass from Sam Backer (run failed) 2:04
CH — Backer 11 run (pass failed) 5:41
EVW — Landon Neiman 58 pass from Wyatt Moehrle (pass failed) 8:37.
CH — Luke Carrier 5 pass from Backer (Carrier run), 8:42
CH — Backer 1 run (Erickson kick) 0:44