DRAPER — Spanish Fork coach Matt Christensen's forehead was gashed and bleeding, a wound that was inflicted by one of his own players in a celebration melee. Even still, no one could wipe the big grin off his face after the Dons upset Juan Diego 21-14 in a 3A quarterfinal Friday night.
Christian Taele ran for 199 yards and a score to go with another receiving touchdown to lead the Dons to the improbable comeback win. Quarterback Hayden Neilsen threw for 140 yards and two touchdowns behind a stellar offensive line effort.
"We haven't made it this far since 1995, so this is huge," Neilsen said. "The feeling is awesome."
Spanish Fork moves on to the semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium next week, while the defending three-time state champions will stay home for the first time in several years.
Up 14-0 at halftime, and having no points scored against them for 15 consecutive quarters, Juan Diego appeared to be in position to cruise through the second half en route to yet another win. However, the Dons came out in the second half with a few wrinkles that seemed to knock the Soaring Eagle off-balance.
Running a new no-huddle attack from the shotgun, Spanish Fork scored just four plays into the second half, when Taele broke several tackles before racing 50 yards to the end zone. The Dons needed just four plays on their next possession to score, this time on a fourth-down, 29-yard pass from Neilsen to Taele.
"I don't think they were expecting (the no huddle). It got us going," Christensen said. "Defensively, I thought we did a great job, putting them in some bad situations. We made a few adjustments and I think that was the difference in the game."
Tied 14-14, the Spanish Fork defense was rejuvenated. Tanner Briggs, Colton Olson, Justin Afualo and company gave the Soaring Eagle little room to run the ball, and even less time to pass. Juan Diego was forced to punt several times into a swirling, bitter wind that helped the Dons with favorable starting position.
The Dons opened the fourth with a long drive consisting of little else but Taele runs. Taking advantage of confusion on the Juan Diego defense, the Spanish Fork no-huddle offense moved the ball to the Soaring Eagle 16 in short order. There Neilsen connected with Dylan Olson, who made the catch while lying on his stomach after slipping in the end zone.
Down 21-14 with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth, Juan Diego was able to mount its first sustained drive of the half. Quarterback Nick Markosian calmly completed two passes and picked up important yards running the option to complement gashing runs in the middle by Brock Garn. But with less than five minutes remaining and the ball on the Spanish Fork 7, a shotgun snap sailed over Markosian's head. Markosian appeared to fall on the ball but it squirmed out and was recovered by Briggs. The Dons earned three first downs to run out the clock.