ST. GEORGE — It came down to a defensive stand — at least three times.
But Desert Hills (8-3) put up the fence when it could have folded and trapped the Bear River Bears in their tracks for a 23-17 victory in the 3A football quarterfinals Friday evening at Desert Hills.
Bear River (7-5) shrugged off a pregame 19-point underdog estimate as though it were a wild guess, holding off to the last set of downs, only to watch Desert Hills quarterback Ty Rutledge take a knee to run out the clock and dash the Bears' hopes for a second straight playoff upset and a trip to the semifinals.
Bear River came within one play of silencing the Thunder and its enthusiastic home crowd, and that play could have come at any time. But the Thunder emerged from its own clouds and somehow maintained a touchdown advantage throughout the game.
In the third quarter, after one of its solid defensive holds, Desert Hills gave up the short field after fumbling the punt and giving up additional yardage on two personal foul penalties. Bear River had first and goal, but had to settle for a field goal after its own costly penalty, and that was pretty much a replay of a pattern for the night.
Desert Hills scored first on a 35-yard pass from Rutledge to Jordan Hokanson. Andrew Yergensen added the extra point. Bear River tied the game with a 20-yard pass from Kyle Zundel to Garrett Fronk, with an extra point by Jared Olsen.
Only moments after connecting for the score, none other than Zundel came from nowhere for a skillful shoestring tackle, then intercepted a pass on the next play. It appeared as though two or three players on the field were wearing the number 5.
Though the first quarter ended tied at 7-7, it didn't take long for Yergensen to split the posts for a field goal for a Thunderous 10-7 lead. However, after gaining precious ground on the ensuing kickoff with the help of a nifty reverse handoff at the 4-yard line, Bear River appeared ready to pounce. But Desert Hills smoothed out a couple of rough spots, and a few good plays later, scored on an 11-yard pass from Rutledge to Josh Anderson for a 16-7 lead.
That's when the fumbled punt and penalties by Desert Hills set Bear River up near the goal, but all they could manage was a field goal, staying within striking distance, but trailing 16-10.
Bear River again put together a nice sequence of plays to stop the Thunder, but Keenan Wittwer caught a 30-yard pass on third down, one of a few good plays on the night, and then Rutledge popped the balloon with a 23-yard twist-and-run-and-score after he couldn't find an open receiver. With a 23-10 lead, Desert Hills appeared close to verifying that 19-point spread.
With just over six minutes remaining in the game, Desert Hills was in punting formation when the center sailed the ball over the punter's head, and Bear River recovered the ball on the Thunder 25-yard line. Wasting no time, Zundel connected 25-yards to Colton Jensen on the next play, and the game was at a very edgy 23-17, with 6:33 remaining in the game.
Desert Hills got four first downs, while taking time off the clock, but then made it really interesting by tossing an interception.
Bear River made four first downs coming the other way, but was foiled at the 16-yard line, having to give the ball over on downs.
"We knew we needed to throw to win," said Desert Hills head coach Carl Franke. "We gave them a short field a few times, but held them.
"We played hard, but we were a few mistakes from a loss."
While pleased with his defense, Franke conceded, "We need to clean some things up. Hopefully, we can play well a game at a time."