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Jacob Knuth calls it the Revenge Tour.
Harrisburg entered the 11AAA playoffs at 5-3, with losses to O’Gorman, Roosevelt and Brandon.
They opened the playoffs by knocking off O’Gorman. Friday night in yet another classic semifinal clash, they stunned the undefeated and top-ranked Rough Riders. That means they’re going to the DakotaDome to play for a championship in just their second year in the state’s highest class, where they’ll have the opportunity to complete the payback trifecta against Brandon.
The Tigers’ 21-19 win over Roosevelt comes just six weeks after the Rough Riders beat Harrisburg 46-21, one of seven straight blowout wins the Rough Riders had put together. They were the only undefeated team in the AAA ranks, a heavy favorite to cruise into the Dome. Harrisburg was a nice story, a team exceeding modest expectations in their second year playing alongside the big boys.
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But behind Knuth, their star quarterback, and a rejuvenated defense, the Tigers led wire to wire against the No. 1 team in the state, holding on for the win when Roosevelt’s 32-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds blew just left of the uprights.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Tigers coach Brandon White. “When we heard we were at 402 (enrollment, two more than the cutoff to move up), we looked at it as a staff and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be there (eventually) anyway, let’s step up to this challenge.’ And our kids said they were jumping on board, too. Our seniors set a hashtag this year of ‘big things’, and we’ve checked off a lot of boxes. Why not check one more?”
Harrisburg Tigers linebacker Cade Larson makes a fumble recovery to stop Sioux Falls Roosevelt near the goal line during the semifinal playoff game Friday night. (Photo: Jon Klemme / For the Argus Leader)
As stout as the Tigers were for the duration, an early mistake by Roosevelt may have been the biggest play of the game. After Harrisburg stalled on the opening drive of the game, their punt into a violent wind barely got past the line of scrimmage, giving the Rough Riders ideal field position. Within a few plays they had 1st and goal from the 3-yard line. They fumbled.
Harrisburg (7-3) recovered the fumble, then drove 95 yards straight into the wind, capping off a 12-play drive with a 1-yard plunge by Knuth on fourth down. Instead of taking a 7-0 lead and putting the Tigers on their heels early, the Rough Riders (8-1) found themselves down a score. And they’d never pull even.
“That was huge,” said Knuth, who completed 13-of-24 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. “Our defense gets a turnover, then we go 95 yards? Huge.”
Harrisburg Tigers receiver Lincoln Carlson gets away from Sioux Falls Roosevelt defender Joey Hughes in the Class 11AAA playoff game on Friday night. (Photo: Jon Klemme / For the Argus Leader)
The Riders got on the board with a 1-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Taylen Ashley, but were flagged for a false start on the extra point. That pushed them back 5 yards and, kicking into the wind, the try missed, leaving the score at 7-6.
Knuth would connect with Ethyn Rollinger for a 23-yard touchdown just before halftime, capping an 11-play, 83-yard drive and giving the Tigers a 14-6 edge at the break. They then pushed the lead to 21-6 on a 12-play, 72-yard drive into the wind that ended on Knuth’s second touchdown pass to Rollinger.
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“We don’t let the conditions affect how we go about our business,” Knuth said of the wind. “We just stick to the gameplan.”
Roosevelt finally found its footing behind Ashley, whose scrambling was the most effective weapon the Riders had on this night. He hit Mike Paulson on a 4-yard touchdown just before the end of the third to cut the lead to 21-13, and Ashley capped a 9-play, 69-yard drive with a 1-yard dive that made it 21-19, with the 2-point try to tie. The Tigers broke up the Roosevelt pass on the conversion, maintaining their 2-point lead with 8:48 to go.
The Riders had two chances after that. The first ended with an Ashley pass over the middle intercepted by Carter Bahrenfuss, but they stuffed the Tigers on a 4th and 1 from the Roosevelt 11-yard line with two minutes left to give themselves one last shot. They had no timeouts.
Ashley quickly drove the Riders downfield, making plays with his arm and his legs and getting the aid of a personal foul penalty that put the ball at the Tiger 38. The Riders appeared poised for a miracle when Ashley scrambled to the 18-yard line with 28 seconds left, but two plays later Ashley had trouble getting the play called at the line, and by the time it ended there were five seconds left.
Rider coach Kim Nelson opted for a 32-yard field goal, and the kick was on target and had the distance. But it took a hard left turn in the wind, and Harrisburg celebrated.
“We had close games all year,” White said. “Resiliency – that was our word.”
Sioux Falls Roosevelt receiver Tyler Feldkamp runs the ball between two Harrisburg defenders on Friday night at Howard Wood Field. (Photo: Jon Klemme / For the Argus Leader)
When asked what was different from this meeting and the blowout loss back in September, White said: “We weren’t down 25-0 to start. We knew they could jump out to big leads. We had to be even or ahead at the end of the first quarter. Then we knew we could mix and match some of our stuff and just play the next play.”
The Riders outgained Harrisburg 319-280 but committed the game’s only two turnovers. Ashley was 11-of-27 for 162 yards through the air while rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Rollinger caught eight passes for 139 yards for the Tigers, while Cade Larson paced the Harrisburg defense with 10 tackles and a sack.
While Roosevelt players slumped to their knees and wept on the turf long after the final whistle, Harrisburg players looked almost dazed, like they could barely believe what they’d just accomplished. But they did it by believing it was possible.
“This is huge for our program,” Knuth said. “It’s awesome. The revenge tour continues.”
Follow Matt Zimmer on Twitter at @ArgusMattZ.