SALT LAKE CITY — Spanish Fork had already erased a 14-point deficit in the 3A semifinals Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium against Desert Hills.
Yet, all of the momentum favored the Thunder with five minutes remaining. Desert Hills had just capped a 12-play, 67-yard scoring drive — that twice was kept breathing from defensive penalties, with a game-tying run by quarterback Ty Rutledge.
In possession, after forcing the Dons to punt, the Thunder started at their own 23-yard line. On the opening play of the series, Rutledge — who had been painfully accurate the entire game, dropped back and looked for the 10-yard button. However, lurking safety Cooper Beck intercepted the route, and ultimately set up Gunnar Beus' decisive, 35-28, winning plunge as Spanish Fork advanced to its first state championship in school history.
"We knew automatically that they were going to pass and I read that they were coming in and I saw the guy break out," said Beck, who was playing the flats in a called defensive zone. "(I) looked over my shoulder and saw the quarterback throw it, broke on it, and picked it."
Kirk Chambers became the first coach since Highland's Brody Benson in 2006 to advance to the state championship in his first season. The Dons will face the winner of the second 3A semifinal today at 6:30 p.m. between Juan Diego and Dixie.
"This first year — wow," Chambers said. "We get to the big dance or the big game, whatever you want to call it. I don't know if I've ever been to one. Gosh, it's just exciting for what's going on at Spanish Fork."
Desert Hills had success in the air early on. With 1:25 left in the first quarter, Rutledge lofted a 38-yarder over the middle to Jordan Hokanson to take the 7-0 lead. Then, after the Dons notched things at 7-7, Rutledge put the Thunder up 14-7 with a 10-yard dash to the pylons.
Then, with 1:43 left in the second, Rutledge connected with Hokanson again for a 42-yard touchdown to claim the two-possession lead. It appeared the flood gates were opening.
But, the Dons remained calm.
"We've been in that situation before and we know that we can dig ourselves out of it," Chambers said.
Behind sophomore quarterback Jason Money, who was 4-for-4 for 65 yards in the two-minute drill, Spanish Fork gashed the lead to 21-14 on Logan Jenson's 16-yard scamper to end the first half.
On the opening kickoff in the third quarter, Desert Hills, on a miscommunication, failed to field the kick. One play later the Jason Money-to-Cameron Money combination cashed in on a 23-yard corner route to even things at 21-21.
"We emphasized to the boys during halftime that we got to bring a lot of energy to the second half," Chambers said. "They came out of the gate right away and made two huge plays for us that flipped the game up on its head and made it what kind of game it was."
"He stepped up and he's just great at managing games," Chambers said of Jason. "He's got a cool head about him and his passing is just sweet. You just watch that ball fly through the air and it's just amazing to see. We're really excited about him, of course this year, and two years after."
Spanish Fork took its first lead of the game as time expired in the third quarter after a 12-play 80-yard drive that took 3:52 seconds ended with Braxton Argyle's 5-yard run.
"We finally got into a rhythm where we felt like we were pushing the pace," Chambers said. "We've played that way all year and I think it finally got to the point where it got Desert Hills where they were fighting the uphill battle."
The win became the culmination of a long road traveled after falling short in the semifinals last year.
"There's not a worse feeling in the world than losing that last game. We were so close and right after that all of us came together," said Cameron Money. "We knew we could get back to this game. We worked hard, had a great offseason, and we all became a team. It's been a great ride, (but) we got one more game to go."