With several close calls this season, the Stansbury football team has shown a flair for the dramatic.
Thus, it came as no surprise that Friday’s Class 4A first-round playoff game against Cedar City came down to the final seconds.
Just minutes after giving the Stallions some much-needed breathing room with his third touchdown of the evening, Stansbury senior Tavita Gagnier stepped in front of a pass from Cedar quarterback Jaxon Garrett at the goal line for a game-clinching interception, preserving the Stallions’ 28-20 win at Stallion Stadium.
“All of us wanted to make a play,” said Gagnier, who had two interceptions in the contest. “I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time.”
Gagnier’s interception was the second big defensive play the Stallions (7-3) made late in the fourth quarter as Cedar (4-6) tried to make a comeback. Shortly after Garrett scored a touchdown to pull CHS within a point at 21-20 with just over six minutes remaining, Stansbury lineman Calvin “Jebus” Mead blocked the ensuing extra point to keep the Stallions in front.
“That was huge,” Stansbury coach Clint Christiansen said. “We told the kids we had to win the special-teams battle. That’s one thing we feel like we lost a couple times. You never know when one point’s going to come down, and it did when they made that block right there. That was a big momentum swing.
“They found a way to win when they had to. It doesn’t matter how you win at this point, as long as you win.”
Mead’s blocked extra point allowed Stansbury, the Region 11 champion, to get the ball back with a lead to protect, rather than facing a tie game and potentially having to go to overtime. The Stallions responded with a pair of big plays in the passing game as part of a nine-play, 65-yard drive that took more than four minutes off the clock.
The first big play came on a third-and-21 from the Stallions’ 24-yard line. Quarterback Mitch Lindsay gave the ball to Jet Richins in the backfield, and Richins, who started the season as Stansbury’s starting quarterback, rolled out to his right before launching the ball deep down the sideline. Somehow, despite tight coverage from the Cedar secondary, the ball found its way into the hands of Austin Woodhouse for a 32-yard gain.
“I don’t know if (Woodhouse) was in or not,” Christiansen said. “We got the call, so we went with it.”
After a pair of big runs by Silas Young got the Stallions into the red zone, Lindsay hit Conner McKay for a 13-yard gain over the middle to set up first-and-goal from the Cedar 4-yard line. Gagnier ran it in for a touchdown on the next play, and Jay Mackay’s extra point stretched the lead to eight points.
“This is a huge moment for our program,” Gagnier said.
Stansbury never trailed in the contest, and took its first lead just 2:12 into the first quarter when Lindsay found Gagnier on a 31-yard pass on fourth-and-15. Cedar, the No. 4 seed from Region 9, answered with a 4-yard touchdown run by Garrett with 7:03 left in the opening period to tie the game.
The Stallions regained the lead on Gagnier’s second touchdown catch of the game with 5:13 left in the first half, this one from 16 yards out. However, Stansbury’s four turnovers kept Cedar in the game, particularly when Kobee Lata picked off a Lindsay pass early in the third quarter and ran it back for a game-tying touchdown. The Stallions also fumbled the ball away three times in the contest, a source of frustration for Christiansen.
“Those fumbles are aging me — they put us in some bad spots,” he said.
It was a Cedar turnover that set up Stansbury’s third touchdown of the evening, and the one that ultimately gave the Stallions the lead for good. Stansbury’s Kooper Roundy picked off Garrett on a deep ball for his second interception of the game, stalling a CHS drive that had just crossed into Stallion territory. After an illegal shift penalty backed Stansbury up to its own 10-yard line, Lindsay fired a deep pass to McKay on first-and-15. McKay bobbled the ball before eventually hauling it in near midfield, stumbled briefly before regaining his balance, broke a tackle and sprinted down the left sideline for a 90-yard touchdown pass.
It was the biggest play of the evening for a suddenly potent Stansbury passing attack that racked up a season-high 259 yards. Lindsay was 9-for-15 for 227 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, while McKay had four catches for 152 yards.
“We made some plays down the stretch when we had to,” Christiansen said. “They were bringing so many guys into the middle — they were just bringing the house every single time to stop us from running the ball, so we knew we were going to have to get out and throw a little bit.”
It appeared Stansbury might put the game out of reach after forcing a Cedar punt early in the fourth quarter, but another turnover gave CHS life. Lindsay fumbled the ball away on the Stallions’ 24-yard line, setting up Garrett’s second TD run of the game seven plays later before Mead’s blocked PAT kept Stansbury in front.
Young led Stansbury’s rushing attack with 112 yards on 20 carries, including carries of 10 and 17 yards on the Stallions’ final drive of the game that led to Gagnier’s third TD.
Defensively, despite allowing Cedar to run for 310 yards, including 136 yards from Drake Fakahua and 127 more by Trent Maurer, the Stallions still put forth an impressive effort. Alix Taukeiaho had 14 tackles — including a tackle-for-loss — and a forced fumble for Stansbury, while Kyle McKenna had 12 tackles.
The win means Stansbury will play host to former region rival Ridgeline in a Class 4A quarterfinal game Friday at 4 p.m. at Stallion Stadium. The Riverhawks held off Region 10 runner-up Spanish Fork 25-22 in their first-round game after finishing third in Region 12.