SYRACUSE — A dominating defense has been Syracuse High's dynamic calling card all season long.
But in Friday's 5A first-round playoff matchup, Lone Peak turned the tables on the Titans. The Knights came up with a fierce defensive effort of their own that stymied the Syracuse offense, and stellar senior quarterback Baron Gajkowski scored two rushing touchdowns in Lone Peak's impressive 21-13 road victory.
Chase Armstrong had two huge interceptions for the Lone Peak defense. He returned his first one 47 yards for a third-quarter touchdown that gave the Knights a 21-10 lead and turned it into a two-score deficit, while his second interception snuffed a Syracuse scoring threat deep in Lone Peak territory late in the third quarter.
"We watched that (play) on film all week,” Armstrong said of his pick-six. " ... I just watched it all the way, read the quarterback, saw him throw it and I was just happy I could be in the right place at the right time.
"I just saw green grass in front of me. (Isaac) Fotu blocked the (Syracuse) quarterback at the end and helped me get in.
"I think it was really big," he said of his game-changing play. " ... They were in a position where they could come down and score and it would've changed the whole form of the game, and getting that pick we were just able to swing (the momentum) back over, get us on top, and give us a good cushion and lead."
Gajkowski got Lone Peak (7-4) on the scoreboard on the first possession of the game, capping the Knights' drive by going 1 yard for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Syracuse immediately responded, as Kavika Fonua broke off a 71-yard scoring scamper on the Titans' first play from scrimmage to tie it up at 7.
"It was just a miscommunication on (their) first drive," Armstrong said. "We just had to come together. I think it was just first-game jitters, you know. We were able to come over (to the sideline) and Coach (Jared) Harward sat us down and talked to us and said, you know, 'Calm down; keep your head in the game.'
"And we were able to figure it out and just go from there and play as a unit. I mean, you've got 11 guys doing their job at the same time, good things are gonna happen."
Late in the first quarter, Syracuse kicker Romney Harker connected on a 43-yard field goal that gave the Titans a 10-7 lead.
But midway through the second period, the visiting Knights mounted a drive behind the running of Gajkowski and Erik Ostrom. On fourth-and-1, Gajkowski broke loose around the right side and scooted down the sideline for a 24-yard TD burst that made it 14-10 until halftime.
"They covered our guys really well, but with how many studs we have all over the field, it really enables me to just kinda go free," Gajkowski said. "They've got guys they have to worry about — (Dylan) Murdock, (Erik) Ostrom, (Zach) Buhrley — and all these guys running all over the field, so they just kinda forget about me back there.
"So it's so fun playing with these guys because they're watching them and kinda fall asleep and I just kinda get to waltz around sometimes.
"It looks like I'm doing all the work but, to be honest, it's my linemen moving guys around and pushing 'em," the Knights' quarterback said. "They did a great job tonight. It kinda makes me mad; I get most of the credit for so-called moves and stuff, but that's not me. It's my guys up front. Those five guys push guys around and really dominated this game. I think that's the reason why we won tonight."
On the opening drive of the second half, Armstrong came up with his pick-six to make it 21-10, and the Titans were in trouble as Lone Peak's defense kept coming up with big play after big play.
Daunte Atkinson finally gave the Titans new life with an interception at the Lone Peak 24, but, three plays later, Armstrong returned the favor with his second pick of the day to stop Syracuse's hopes dead in their tracks.
Harker hit a 35-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter to pull the Titans within 21-13, but Gajkowski and the Knights took the ensuing kickoff and ran the final 5:37 off the clock to preserve the victory.
"Syracuse is a great team, you know. They're a class act," Gajkowski said. "There's some times when you come out in this type of playoff-game environment, (and) you're not used to playing at 4 o'clock and things just seem a little bit weird. Trash talk comes out and, you know, it's a competitive thing — it's a 5A state playoff game — and these guys are just a class act.
"They're a great team and a great defense, outstanding. Kavika Fonua, he's something else. ... I just feel like the coaches had us well-prepared this week. We watched a lot of film and we saw some spots where we could really attack 'em, and they did a great job of preparing us. The coaching staff, hats off to them.
"When Chase just gets a pick like that and the defense makes a play, tons of pressure comes off our shoulders," he said. "It just enables us to kinda not really worry too much because, you know what, the defense has got our back. Defense can win the ballgame like they did today."
Gajkowski referred to it as a "great team victory," and Lone Peak coach Mike Mower echoed those sentiments, giving plenty of credit to his defense and the play of his quarterback.
"It's hard to point to one kid, but that defensive line, our defense just stepped up and got it done," Mower said. "(Syracuse) had that one long play at the beginning of the ballgame but, after that, man, (the Knights' defense) stepped up so many times when we had to have them get it done, when our offense would slip a little bit. Especially that defensive front, I just can't say enough about 'em. I thought ... the hallmark of the game was the defensive line.
"Our kids were ready to play. They really were. We had a great week of practice; they were confident; and they came to play. This is a class outfit we beat; I have the highest respect for Syracuse and what they do, and that makes the win even sweeter when you beat a quality team like this.
"He's just one of those guys that, when you need it done, you have great confidence in him that he's gonna get it done most of the time. He really is," Mower said of Gajkowski. "And that's what you have to do. You have to go to your best athletes to get it done, and that's what we do.
"Baron is such a competitor. He's one of the most fierce competitors I've ever coached, and it's like he just can't be denied. He really is an exceptional athlete and just a great young man, too. I mean, really, he's a jewel. ... What can I say? We're lucky to have him. He just knows how to get it done. He just has that extra sense of what he's gotta do. He's just relentless, I mean, he is. Honestly, he is a super kid on and off the field — great leader, a natural leader for everybody, and we're lucky to have him.
"But so many kids contributed," Mower said. "It wasn't just one or two guys, it was just a team win up and down. I'm proud of our kids; they've battled and battled and hung in there all season, and it's paid off. It's paid off for them, working through a little adversity. I think there's a great lesson to be learned here — when you have adversity, you just never, never quit. And you just keep pounding and that's what these kids have done this season. And now good things are happening."
Syracuse, which reached the 5A state finals last year and had never lost a home playoff game before Friday's disappointing defeat, wound up 8-2 overall.
"Their defense is good and they've got a good football team, and they came out and played ready and we just didn't make plays like we usually do," Syracuse coach Russ Jones said. "You've got to hand it to them. They've got a dang good football team and executed and did a great job.
"We couldn't contain him, man," he said of Gajkowski. "We couldn't contain him."
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