KENSINGTON, Kan. - Osborne coach Steve Tiernan first wanted to give significant credit to Thunder Ridge after the Bulldogs won Friday’s wild 40-34 road contest. TR led by 20 points after the first quarter and by six at halftime versus Osborne, ranked No. 1 in Eight-Man, Division II.
Longhorn senior running back Reece Struckhoff delivered 17 carries for 180 yards and four scores at intermission. He did not play in the second half because of apparent injury/concussion protocol. Struckhoff is expected to return next week.
Still, Thunder Ridge, with seniors Colton Davis and Riggs Reneberg, and freshman quarterback Dylan Bice and freshman wide receiver Kaleb Wagenblast, stayed close in the second half after Osborne tallied 26 straight points.
TR tied the game at 32 with 7 minutes, 26 seconds left on a two-yard run from Davis. Three plays later, Davis helped the Longhorns earn a safety and a 34-32 advantage with five and half minutes remaining.
“Everything I say is with full respect to those guys,” Tiernan said. “Thunder Ridge, they played their butts off. They played very well.”
However, Osborne forced a punt after the Thunder Ridge safety and gained position at midfield with three minutes to go. The Bulldogs, with fumbling issues all game, fumbled on the first play of the drive on a carry from senior running back Darrien Holloway.
After a long talk, the officials ruled Holloway was down. Five straight rushes moved the Bulldogs to the Thunder Ridge 11-yard line with 39.5 seconds remaining.
Osborne usually runs to the two-receiver (twins) side of the field, whether it’s a guard leading the play or a speed option. Senior quarterback Steele Wolters came over to the sideline, and asked if the Bulldogs wanted to run a sweep to the strong side, which had the twins.
“They have a lot of speed, and we tried to contain it without Reece, and that’s real tough,” TR coach Joel Struckhoff said. “So we were sending some people there. And we knew that they were probably going to run a sweep. It’s just we tried to play man on man with them, and it just didn’t work out.”
Tiernan told Wolters “to go for it.” Osborne still had a timeout left, and Tiernan already had a play in case the Bulldogs didn’t score. Wolters ran left and scored the game-winning touchdown.
“Everybody did their job,” Wolters said. “And I didn’t even have to beat anybody. It was wide open.”
“Worth a try, and it worked,” Tiernan added. “Good call by him.”
Thunder Ridge had the ball back with 32.5 seconds left. The Longhorns ran three plays and believed they had more time left on the clock. Coach Struckhoff wanted to run a fake spike and deep pass, but the officials ruled TR was out of time. Osborne, the defending state runner-up, captured District 5 and improved to 8-0, 5-0 in district play.
“Kept our minds to the grind,” senior Evan Garman said. “I am always the guy that tells everybody in the huddle on D and O, ‘Stay locked in. This is what you’ve worked for. This is what you spend every day this summer, last fall. Every day. This is what you spend every day going hard for.’”
The Longhorns, ranked fifth, dropped to 7-1, 4-1 and finished as district runner-up. As well, key Longhorn junior lineman Mark Ferguson was banged up.
“We are a really hard-fought football team,” coach Struckhoff said. “We are never going to quit. These boys, they have been through a lot this year already, and they are never going to give up. Regardless who we’ve got on the field, all eight of them are going to give everything they have got every night. It doesn’t matter who is in there, who is not in there. They are going to give everything they’ve got.”
Osborne had committed just one turnover entering the contest, but lost a fumble on a kickoff return. Wolters had 21 carries for 136 yards, and Holloway 15 rushes for 91 yards. They combined for four fumbles. Osborne finished with 10 penalties.
“Like I told our guys in the (postgame) huddle, I don’t know if you could really have more things go against us, and then still look up and we won a game against a very good team, so we did catch a few breaks, just enough breaks to win,’” Tiernan said. “But hopefully we get rid of that stuff.”
Struckhoff and Holloway are two of the state’s top running backs. Holloway has more than 3,800 career yards, while Struckhoff has cleared 1,500 yards this fall. Thunder Ridge opened the contest with a 13-play, 58-yard drive that included a 4th-and-2 conversion from its own 30-yard line. The 190-pound Struckhoff consistently broke several tackles on carries.
He ended the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. Thunder Ridge led 8-6 after Osborne responded with a 13-yard scoring run from Wolters.
Then, Struckhoff scored from 55 yards on the first play of the next drive. Osborne fumbled the kickoff, and Struckhoff quickly scored again, from 15 yards out. He added a 39-yard touchdown just before the first quarter ended.
“They kind of dominated the line, to where even their second-string guy, he had success running the ball against us,” Tiernan said.
Osborne tallied a pair of second quarter scores on a 20-yard run from Wolters and a three-yard score from sophomore Mason Schurr. TR led 26-20 at halftime.
“They were good enough to catch some breaks, and we were bad enough to give the ball away,” Tiernan said. “…We say that a lot – ‘stay the course, stay the course.’ I have said that all year. Whether we are up a bunch or down a bunch, the score doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is when that whistle blows, and other than that, play to the whistle. And when the game is over, I will tell you if you have won or lost. That must have sunk in a little bit.”
Struckhoff was noticeably not at full strength as the second quarter progressed. After halftime, he wore a hooded sweatshirt on the sideline.
“We came into the locker room there at halftime, and he had a little bit of a ding, and just didn’t feel like we needed to put him back out there the second half,” coach Struckhoff said. “Not a whole lot more to say about that right now. He will play Thursday. It’s not that serious. I think he will be perfectly fine by Thursday and not a big deal.”
Osborne quickly tied the score at 26 with 9:55 left on an impressive 37-yard run from Wolters.
“We knew we were still going to have a chance to win,” Wolters said. “They weren’t that much better than us. We knew that the whole time. We knew we just had to keep fighting. We had a couple of turnovers.”
TR nearly had a touchdown on a long pass from Bice to Wagenblast, but the TD was called off because of offensive pass interference. Osborne has yet to allow a passing score this year.
“He has got a cannon for an arm,” coach Struckhoff said of Bice. “He is a great athlete. Just one of those guys that’s going to be a four-year dude for us, and he’s going to be a really big contributor all four years.”
At the three-minute mark of the third quarter, Wolters (31 passing yards) lofted a nine-yard touchdown pass to Garman for a 32-26 lead. Garman did not play football last year, and is the team’s leading tackler. It marked his first catch of the season.
“Kind of mind-blown, I guess,” Garman said. “I don’t know. I mean, there’s been opportunities throughout the season to have another one, but there’s also been a more open guy. Even tonight when I caught the one, there was two guys off to the right side that were wide open. And then I had basically double coverage on me.”
Thunder Ridge scored eight straight points off the touchdown and the safety before Wolters’ score. Afterward, Osborne celebrated with the district championship. Garman, one of several new Bulldogs on the squad in 2019, walked off the field with the district title plaque in hand.
“I knew tonight was going to be a dogfight,” Garman said. “It stinks that they couldn’t have some of their better players out there on the field with us, just trying to go at it with each other. That would have made my night, and probably their night 10 times as better to be out here with us, grinding it. I had an all-around good time.”