ALTA -A strange sense of deja vu surrounded the Cyclones rematch with Akron-Westfield even before kickoff on Monday night. Arguably the two best teams in the district head-to-head on Alta's home turf.
It didn't stop there. Again, the Cyclones jumped out ahead early. Again, they held an explosive Westerner offense in check, and again, Akron-Westfield stormed back. This time however, Alta made sure that's where it ended as they held off a 13 point 4th quarter rally by the Westerners to claim the 28-20 victory.
"We had to hang on for dear life," said Alta head coach Kevin Hammer. "They certainly made it interesting, but that's why you play the game."
The Cyclone offense struck early as senior running back Jack Mills a long run to set up his five yard dash into the endzone for the 6-0 advantage with 5:30 left in the first quarter.
Not to be outdone by his counterpart in the backfield, Michael Huseman took a reverse 63 yards for a score before time expired in the first quarter as the Cyclones led Akron-Westfield 12-0 for the second time in ten days.
The Westerners struck back before half however, as they recovered a Cyclone fumble and ran it back for the score to make it 12-7 with 5:44 left in the half. The Westerners forced a Cyclone punt and two consecutive pass interference calls advanced A-W all the way down to the Alta 20 yard line.
Westerner quarterback Erik Eskra hadn't thrown an interception all season coming into Monday's game, but Ryan Vonnahme snapped that streak and returned it 67 yards to end the A-W scoring threat and put Alta in field goal position.
The Jake Syndergaard attempt failed however, and the Cyclones held a 12-7 advantage at the break.
The third quarter saw Alta break the game open as they appeared to be headed for a blowout. Mills took a reverse 41 yards for the score with 8:16 left and Huseman fought through multiple tackles to convert the two-point attempt to push the lead to 20-7.
The Westerners began to drive, but Huseman intercepted Eskra for the second time of the night and returned it to the A-W 12. On the very next play Mills would sprint out and get the corner for his third rushing score of the night. Mills was good on the conversion as well, and the Cyclones led 28-7 heading into the fourth.
"We were pretty opportunistic with the turnovers," said Hammer. "In big games like this, the team that can take advantage of those usually wins."
Then, Eskra made it interesting. The junior found Nathan easton on a 32 yard scoring strike with 8:43 left to bring the game within two scores. The ensuing kickoff was muffed by the Cyclones who were forced to start their drive on their own three yard line.
They failed to convert the first and were forced to punt away as Akron-Westfield took over deep in Alta territory. It took A-W just three runs, all by Eskra, to march into the endzone and make the score 28-20 with under five minutes left.
Alta was able to march and milk some precious time off the clock, but the Westerners did get the ball back with two minutes on the clock. Eskra's final two heaves fell short and the Cyclones' celebration began.
"We had to get the clock going for one thing," said Hammer. "We just didn't want to give them a quick score. We just wanted to settle our kids down and get some first downs, but they still got a shot at us. Obviously, it would have been nice to not be in that situation, but they're a good football. They won the district and first round of playoffs."
The Cyclones out-gained the Westerners 282 yards to 199 on the night. Mills led Alta with 156 yards and 3TDs while Huseman added 95 and a score as the Cyclone offensive line paved the way for the duo all night.
"I thought our offensive line really blocked well tonight," said Hammer. "All week, we talked about how we could block a little different against them. Mills and Huseman just need a crease and they're gone. We really wanted to concentrate on our blocking tonight. Defensively, we knew they were going to come out and try to throw again. We changed up our defense a little bit with more of a cover two look. With a short week, our coaches did a great job of breaking down films and making adjustments."
The win means the Cyclones (9-2) are just one more win away from clinching a berth down at the dome. Their opponent is the highly-regarded Southern Cal Mustangs (10-1). The district two champions haven't lost a game to a Class A opponent this season.
Thanks to the new playoff format, the Cyclones have the benefit of playing in front of their home crowd with the game to be held in Alta Friday night.
"Our fans and community have really rallied around our football team," said Hammer. "Hats off to them. Southern Cal is a very good football team year in and year out. They get to the playoffs and go deep into the playoffs. We're gonna look forward to the challenge. Our kids and our community are fired up."