After battling back-and-forth in an error-laden first half, the Grand County High School Red Devils pulled away in the second half of their home opener, defeating region foe Kanab 34-17 on Friday.
The Red Devils got on the board first after each team fumbled away their first possessions when junior quarterback Jacob Francis connected down the middle of the field with a 63-yard play-action touchdown pass to senior Preston Walston. A botched snap on the point-after attempt left Grand County up 6-0.
The Red Devils were knocking on the door again with their next possession, coming within a few inches of being up two scores before Kanab’s Brandon Nielsen intercepted a Francis pass and took it 99 yards back the other way to put Kanab ahead 7-6 with 1:06 left in the opening frame.
“I talked to (Francis) after that play,” said Grand County football coach Dennis Wells. “I’d rather see him take a sack and kick a field goal the next play than have him try to force the ball and have it brought back the other way.”
The Red Devils answered back immediately as Francis and junior running back Koi Cook reeled off consecutive big runs before Francis took it the final five yards to cap off a three-play, 73-yard drive spanning only 61 seconds. Francis ran up the middle for the two-point conversion to give Grand County a 14-7 lead.
“I was worried about how we were going to respond,” Wells said. “It was nice to see us take it right down the field.”
After tacking on a field goal to pull to 14-10, Kanab reclaimed the lead 17-14 in the middle of the second quarter on 74-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Jenson to Merrill Terry.
Grand County responded once again when junior Cameron Taylor picked up a botched snap on the Cowboys’ next drive and returned it for a touchdown, reclaiming the lead for the Red Devils at 21-17.
Francis said the Red Devils knew they were beating themselves so they focused on forgetting about their mistakes and playing good football.
Cook scored twice on the ground in the second half, on a 1-yard run and a 4-yard run, and the Red Devils shut out the Cowboys in the second half for the 34-17 victory.
The Red Devils gained 280 yards rushing in the contest. Francis led the way with 18 carries for 93 yards, Cook added 83 yards on 17 carries and Taylor rushed 12 times for 71 yards.
“Our linemen were blowing them off the line all game,” Francis said. “Those five guys, the starting offensive line, are the reason we had the success we had tonight.”
In the passing game, Francis completed seven of 13 passes for 133 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Senior Aaron Lewis caught three passes for 43 yards.
“Our line is giving us time to pass so we’re going to use it,” Francis said. “When we’re passing the ball well it also opens up holes in the running game.”
The Red Devils were tackling poorly and allowed Kanab to move the ball well through the air throughout the contest, mostly on short screen passes and runs after the catch, but they forced five turnovers as Lewis and junior Layton Call had interceptions and Cook added a fumble recovery to go along with the two previous fumble recoveries.
“We’ve have to work on (tackling),” Cook said. “We need to break down and not over-pursue.”
Jenson completed 18-of-37 passes for 319 yards for the Cowboys, with 146 yards coming on a pair of 70-plus yard passing plays.
The Red Devils improved to 2-1 (1-0, 2A South) and face another region opponent at home 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 7 as they welcome arch rival San Juan. The Broncos, picked by many to win the state title, are 3-0 (1-0, 2A South) after consecutive 35-point wins, 35-0 over Monticello on Aug. 24 and 41-6 over South Sevier on Aug. 31.
Although Wells said he’s treating it like “just another game,” Francis and Cook said they’re going to be “twice as intense in practice” this week.
“We’re gonna’ be bringing it each and every day,” Cook said.
San Juan beat Grand 47-13 in the season opener in 2011 and went undefeated until the state semifinals where they upset 35-20 by Millard. San Juan has defeated Grand the last seven times they’ve met with the last Red Devil victory coming in the 2006 season opener. In fact, the Red Devils are 2-26 in their last 28 meetings dating back 1987 with their only other win coming in the 2005 state championship game.
San Juan’s recipe for success so far in the 2012 season has been a balance offense with about 20 passing attempts per game. The Broncos threw the ball 31 times in their season-opening 19-11 victory over Snow Canyon.
“They’re a really good, senior-loaded team,” Wells said. “We have to bring it hard because we know they’re going to bring it hard.”
The Red Devils should benefit from being the home team against San Juan, especially if the turnout is similar to the nearly-packed stadium they enjoyed against Kanab.
“There’s nothing better than Friday night under the lights,” Wells said. “No matter where I am, even if I wasn’t coaching, if it’s Friday in the fall, I’m watching a high school football game. That’s what we live for.”