Football is a pretty simple game. If you keep your opponent out of the end zone, your chances of winning are normally very good.
The St. Thomas More Cavaliers did just that in the first round of the Class 11B state playoffs, stopping Elk Point-Jefferson 23-3 Thursday night at Dutton Field.
The Cavs, 8-1 overall, never trailed and were never really threatened, and did more than enough on offense to pick up the victory. With the win, St. Thomas More advances to the quarterfinals next Thursday at Winner against a Warrior team that handed STM it's only loss of the season in the second week.
Despite an early muffed punt and several penalties that either slowed down their offense or gave Elk Point-Jefferson some extended drives, STM coach Wayne Sullivan said his team did a good job of overcoming some adversities.
"There were a few costly penalties, a muffed punt at the beginning. We gave them the ball too many times in the first half, and we can't do that going forward," said Sullivan. "But also credit to Elk Point-Jefferson, they are a good, hard-nosed football team, typical East River. We are very blessed to get out of this and be able to play next week."
After a quick and scoreless first quarter, the Cavaliers got going behind a balanced running game, led by junior back Ryan Wojcik, and the arm of senior quarterback Ryder Kirsch.
Elk Point-Jefferson missed a 43-yard field goal attempt early in the second, and an alert Trey Herrboldt picked up the ball at about the 10-yard line and ran it back to the 36.
A holding call set the Cavs back to a third and 30 deep inside their own territory, but a 35-yard screen pass from Kirsch to Dalton Klosterman gave them new life. A 12-yard pass to senior Nick Lembke and a 22-yard pass to Wojcik set up a 1-yard TD run by Wojcik, the first of his two scores in the quarter.
After STM's defense forced another three-and-out, the Cavaliers drove 53 yards on seven plays, capped by an 11-yard touchdown run by Wojcik in a drive that was highlighted by a 22-yard pass from Kirsch to Charlie Larson.
Late in the quarter, the Cavs made it 17-0 on a 22-yard field goal by Jack Green in a wild sequence that likely didn't please either head coach.
With under a minute to play, Wojcik caught passes of 18 and 17 yards and was just pushed out of bounds inside the 1-yard line. He then fumbled on the next play, but STM recovered. Another run went nowhere and the Cavs were called for a delay of game penalty. With just 1 second left on the clock — much to the chagrin of EPJ coach Jacob Terry — Green's field goal ended the first half.
The Huskies got on the board on a long, time-consuming drive that was extended on a personal foul penalty by the Cavs, while EPJ converted one 4th-down pass. The Huskies eventually got a 33-yard field goal by Dimiris Nuno.
But that was all the STM defense would allow, overcoming another long drive that was extended by another personal foul penalty, and a defensive holding call that nullified an interception by Herrboldt.
Sullivan gave credit to STM defensive coordinator Craig Nowotny and the assistant coaches as the Cavalier defense kept the Huskies out of the end zone.
"They did a great job getting ready this week. It is all about being prepared, and they were very prepared that they could play downhill, and they were able to do that," Sullivan said.
Elk Point-Jefferson finished with just 166 yards of total offense.
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"They had a couple of good plays on us, but we held them overall,"said Lembke, a senior fullback/linebacker. "They'd get a first down off of some penalty, but we kept our focus. We just stuffed the holes and didn't give them any chances.
"Holding them to three points, I would say that is a great game."
Lembke, who had been slowed down with a contusion in his calf since the Belle Fourche game Oct. 4, hadn't been playing as much on offense, mostly on defense.
But he was able to close the scoring midway through the fourth quarter on an 8-yard touchdown run.
"When they put me in and said 21 dive, I just hit the hole. I had blockers, I could cut off of their asses, and I just ran into the end zone," he said.
Kirsch had another strong game, completing 12-of-17 passes for 192 yards. Wojcik was hard to bring down in the fourth quarter and led all runners with 88 yards on 17 carries.
"I thought we did pretty good. But we had way too many penalties that hurt us," Kirsch said. "Other than that we came out hard. We knew that Elk Point was a great team and we would have to come out and play tough. I think we did just that.
"We're lucky to have Ryan, he is a great running back. Our line is amazing. Teams, like tonight, are more focused on our pass, so we can go straight to our run and do just as good as our pass. It's a great one-two punch."
Terry gave credit to the Cavaliers, but he said his team just wasn't able to execute on both offense and defense for much of the night.
"They (STM) are a good team, Sully has them rolling and has them playing well," Terry said. "It's tough to drive eight hours across the state and get yourself ready to play, but that is part of the deal. You have to be able to execute. It comes down to blocking and tackling and we had too many missed tackles."
Playing from behind doesn't suit the Huskies offense, Terry added, as they are a run-first team. They had only attempted about 58 passes going into the game and quarterback Ethan Hammitt was 6-of-16 passing for 45 yards.
"They forced us to do things we normally don't do. We tried to play catch up for a team that runs the ball," he said.
The Cavaliers, back down in Class B for the first time in five years, will get the rematch they wanted when they travel to Winner next week. The No. 2 and unbeaten Warriors rolled to a 46-20 win over STM on Sept. 14. Winner crushed Lead-Deadwood 60-7 in the first round.
Kirsch said that week two was a wake-up call against Winner.
"Since then we have worked harder and harder," he said. "We set goals ourselves and we want Winner. We want to come hard and play them tough, and give them a game."