The recipe for winning a play-in football game does not generally include playing on the road against a higher ranked opponent, heavy fog, heavier rain, injuries to the team’s all-state players, a scoreless second half and committing 14 penalties for 135 yards.
But on the road at Newport on Friday night, Cottage Grove was able to weather the storm – both literally and figuratively – to come away with a 32-24 victory that sends the team to the first round of the state playoffs.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words – to be honest with you – about the whole thing,” said head coach Gary Roberts after the victory. “(Coordinator Marty Johnson) and I were talking to each other and we’re…both saying, ‘Hey, we’ve never been a part of anything like this.’ And at the same time, thinking, how can we handle any more adversity than we have?”
In the first half, Cottage Grove’s first bump in the road was when quarterback Dylan Graves was injured while in at safety while on defense. Coming up with a tackle, he took a helmet to the leg that kept him down after the play. Playing with a slight limp throughout the rest of the game, Graves was able to rely on throwing the ball while still being able to scramble for extra yards. Graves finished the day completing 23 of 30 passes for 240 yards, three touchdowns and an interception while rushing for 76 yards and a touchdown.
But guiding the offense – despite also suffering a leg injury later in the game – was Erick Giffen. Giffen was everywhere on offense including at quarterback where he took direct snaps throughout the game.
The perfect encapsulation of Giffen’s mark on the game was in a drive in the second quarter where he took over for the team. Backed up on their own one-yard line – thanks to the Cottage Grove defense stopping the Cubs on fourth and goal – Giffen took the snap and ran for 59 yards. A play later he found Jaden Doolittle for a 34-yard pass and capped the drive with a touchdown reception from Graves and, for good measure, a successful point after attempt.
“I just have to shoutout to me and Dylan’s line because that protection on all the plays where I was able to break them loose, I was untouched. So kudos to my line, said Giffen. He finished the day with 165 rushing yards, 125 receiving yards, 43 passing yards and three touchdowns.
“Erick’s a great football player. He’s good at times ad-libbing. Sometimes it hurts him, sometimes it helps him but he’s a good football player and I’m really proud of the way he came up big for us,” said Roberts. “We have to have big plays from Dylan, we have to have big plays from Erick for us to be successful and we got those tonight.”
Jaden Doolittle also scored in the first half for Cottage Grove on a 22-yard reception. Doolittle finished the game with 84 yards receiving on five catches. Jacob Dunn added 62 yards on five catches.
After throwing an interception on the first play of the game, Newport favored the run game. Cottage Grove came away with four interceptions on the day -- one a piece from Zumwalt, Giffen, Doolittle and Trace Nelson.
With Cottage Grove leading 32-8 at the half, it was Newport starting the second half on the right foot. Tanner Stottlemyre, who scored in the first half, ran for a 48-yard score on the first drive of the second half and followed that up with a pick six. After the team’s third successful two-point attempt, Newport had made it a one-possession game. With the Cubs back in the game, the Lions were not helping themselves as they were called for eight second-half penalties.
“Seemed like everything was against us the second half. I mean, we put together a good first half and I think the second half was alright but I don’t know. Obviously football is a game of no excuses so I can’t say anything but the reffing and a lot of the talking on the field that was happening, I feel kind of went Newport’s way but I mean, we came out on top,” said Giffen.
Down a score and facing a fourth and nine in the closing minutes of the game, the Cubs elected to punt but a Cottage Grove running into the kicker made it fourth and manageable for the home team. They extended their drive and were marching downfield and made it to the Cottage Grove 36 yard-line before a Nelson’s interception sealed the victory for the Lions.
“In the playoffs you talk about survive and advance. We survived, we advanced. I talked to the guys about how proud I was that they kept fighting through a lot of adversity when it looked like adversity may get the best of us,” said Roberts. “That’s a rough, physical football game that could have easily gone south on us and our kids just kept scrapping and clawing and I’m really proud of them.”
With the win, Cottage Grove will now face Gladstone on the road on Friday at 7 p.m. The Gladiators are ranked number two in the state and are on a five-game winning streak. The teams faced each other last season in the quarterfinals where the Lions won 27-10.
“They have quite a few guys back from last year’s team,” said Roberts. “They gave us probably the best football game that anybody did last year. And so we’re going to have to be ready to get after it.”