Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor
It wasn’t just the weather that was cold on Friday night at Sheldon High School. Aside from the 30-something degree temperature, it took the Irish football team a little while to warm up as well. In the end, the Irish pulled out a 45-21 victory over the Lincoln Cardinals in the second round of the 6A OSAA playoffs.
“I’m just glad this one is over with and that we’re moving on,” claimed Johnson.
Don’t let the scoreboard fool you. The second-ranked Irish came out flat in this one. Ironically, they found themselves in an unfamiliar position early in the first quarter. Usually the aggressors, the Sheldon defense was reeling on Lincoln’s opening drive, as Cardinals’ quarterback Johnny Williams marched his team down the field for an early 7-0 lead. It marked the first time all year that the Irish started a game trailing.
“We just didn’t hit on the cylinders that we’ve been hitting on,” said Johnson of the slow start. “I don’t have answer for it. I guess I didn’t do a very good job getting our team prepared, but we’re still playing.”
By the same token, Johnson was quick to give credit to his opponents’ efforts.
“I think 90 percent of it might be the job that Lincoln did,” he said. “They were very well prepared and their kids are tough and physical. They kind of took it to us. We answered a couple of knock down shots, so I’m proud of our kids.”
Indeed, the Irish did answer a couple of haymakers with a few blows of their own. They quickly answered Lincoln’s scoring drive with one of their own that ended with a short touchdown run by junior running back Connor Strahm, who was the Cardinal killer during the evening.
Strahm did it with his feet by running for 100 yards on 12 carries. He was just as nimble with his hands by catching five passes for 169 yards. In the end, he wound up with five touchdowns and had 269 of Sheldons 366 yards of total offense.
“Connor took over for us on both sides of the ball,” Johnson explained. “He’s an outstanding football player who has a shiftiness to him that, in my 26 years of coaching, I’ve rarely seen.”
That shiftiness came in handy in the second quarter, when he took a direct snap and darted his way into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. That gave the Irish a 14-7 advantage, Strahm wasn’t done yet.
On Lincoln’s next series, Strahm displayed his defensive prowess by picking off a pass from Williams and took it to the Cardinals’ nine yard line. Shortly thereafter, Strahm caught a short pass from Dillon Miller, extending their lead to 20-7.
In the third quarter, it appeared as if Strahm had delivered a knock out blow with a 39-yard touch down run on the opening drive. The Irish were suddenly up 29-7 and the Cardinals were reeling, right? Wrong.
Sheldon’s defense showed some inconsistency during the course of the evening, too. There were great moments when defensive tackle Jacob Foutz delivered two wicked sacks on Williams. However, when Williams didn’t go down, he was scrambling every which way and making plays. This was why Lincoln managed two quick scores to close the gap at 29-21.
“We are a great defensive team when we stay on our feet and tackle,” Johnson said. “But when we start to go to the ground, we become really average. Their quarterback is really slippery. I don’t have an answer for why we couldn’t tackle him, but he did a great job of eluding us.”
In the end, Lincoln could only elude the Irish so often. In the fourth quarter, Miller calmed any anxieties from the Sheldon faithful by throwing a four-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Herr that essentially locked up the game. After that, the Cardinals seemed to lose focus, and couldn’t quite get back on track for the rest of the night.
As a result, Sheldon will move on to face the Grant Generals this coming Friday. Still, Johnson emphasized that he expected a better effort out of his team in the next game.
“We’re still playing,” Johnson explained. “But we’re not as sharp as we need to be. We were just flat. I guarantee we’ll be better next week.”
As has been the case the last two playoff games, the Irish will have the home field advantage again. Now, according to Johnson, the key will be to get back to playing the way that got them in this position in the first place.
“Getting to play here is huge for us,” he said. “We just need to play with the spunk that we had for the first 10 weeks of the season that we didn’t have tonight.”