When it mattered most, the Durango High School defense came up huge, and the offense finished the job to give the Demons the biggest win of their regular season.
Now, it’s on to the Colorado High School Activities Association Class 3A State Football Playoffs. The Demons, ranked No. 7 in the coaches poll and rated seventh in the RPI going into Friday’s clash with Pueblo East, is certainly assured a first-round home playoff game next week.
The Demons had to fight for that right. Against a Pueblo East (4-6, 3-2 3A South Central League) team fighting for its own playoff life that is now on fumes, Durango (7-3, 4-1 SCL) secured a 33-20 win Friday night.
“It’s good to see we could finish a game,” said Durango’s Everett Howland. “We’ve lost a few close games, and our motto all year was to finish. We finally did it this game.”
Durango junior quarterback Jordan Woolverton and Howland, a senior running back, each ran for two touchdowns in the win. The two had talked all season about bringing a home playoff game to Durango after hosting only four regular-season games. Now, they will get their wish.
“That’s our goal going into every season is to get a home playoff game,” DHS head coach David Vogt said. “Jordan and Everett, some of the runs they’ve had the last three weeks, the balance, fight and drive they have to get this done, they have fought so hard to get this done. It all stems from the offensive line, and every single guy fought so hard.”
A bizarre, long first half saw plenty of action before the game cleaned up a bit in the second half. An early 88-yard TD run by Woolverton was negated by a penalty.
Finally, the teams exchanged touchdowns twice in the final three minutes of the first quarter, and a 21-yard Caleb McGrath field goal gave the Demons a 17-14 lead going into halftime.
McGrath, who is back with the football team full time after he completed boys soccer season earlier this week, would make another field goal of 27 yards in the third quarter, as the Demons took a 20-14 lead into the fourth quarter.
“Knowing we have a really good kicker is a nice safety valve,” Howland said. “He can help us win close games.”
After a game mainly marred by penalties and miscues, the fourth quarter was loaded with drama.
Pueblo East mounted a potential go-ahead drive and had first down on Durango’s 20-yard line. But a run was stuffed for a loss followed by a 15-yard personal foul on an Eagles offensive lineman on a play made behind the line of scrimmage late and away from the play. Suddenly, it was fourth-and-30 for the Eagles on their own 40.
Facing third-and-35, the Eagles tried a reverse to Marvin London. Durango defensive tackle Carver Willis blew up the play for a huge loss all the way back to the Durango 49-yard line to make it fourth-and-41. What looked like a promising drive resulted in nothing more than a punt.
“We’ve been preaching fundamentals, reading keys, playing fast and doing things right,” Vogt said of his defense. “We will make plays, and we made some huge plays right there.”
Durango would mount a decent drive to eat some clock but eventually also had to punt. Pueblo East took over on its own 9-yard line with 4:40 to play. After briefly moving the ball, it was a sack by Durango’s Thomas Barnes and William Knight to bring down Pueblo East running quarterback Jaxson Herring that would set up a crucial fourth-and-6. Passing quarterback Jack Helzer came into the game, but he threw an incomplete pass to give Durango the ball back on the Pueblo East 24 with 2:59 to play.
Woolverton would take a high snap on a botched play in which he was supposed to hand the ball off to Howland. With three defenders right in his face, suddenly Woolverton used a burst of speed to get through the line and run for a 21-yard gain. One play later, he was in the end zone on a 3-yard TD run that gave the Demons a 27-14 lead with 2:13 to go.
“I wasn’t expecting to break those tackles,” Woolverton said of the broken play that set up the TD. “I cut up, broke some tackles and made a big play out of nothing.”
Pueblo East then had the ball on its own 35, but a Helzer pass was intercepted by Ean Goodwin for the third Durango defense forced turnover on the game. One play later, Howland ran untouched for a 36-yard TD to make it 33-14 with 1:54 to play.
“I knew our line would do a great job,” Howland said. “I just followed Demetrius Trujillo, and he opened the hole.”
Helzer would march the Eagles down the field on the backup DHS defense for a later 23-yard TD pass to Nick Carrera, but the 2-point try and ensuing onside kick were both unsuccessful, and the Demons took a knee to secure the victory.
Pueblo East struck first in the first quarter. The Eagles took advantage of good field position after punts by Kaeden Bowman had backed Durango up inside its own 10 on its first two possessions. A five-play, 41-yard TD drive would end on a 5-yard run by Herring that gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
When Durango finally had field position for the first time in the game, the Demons needed only four plays to go 62 yards, as Howland scored on a 42-yard TD run.
“Daylight,” Howland said. “Open field, and I took it. The O-line has done such a great job and is earning what we’ve gotten.”
It would be Carrera and the Eagles who would immediately strike back, though. He picked up a squib kick and returned it roughly 85 yards up the Pueblo East sideline for a TD that gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead.
“I had been waiting for that all year,” Carrera said. “It felt so good running into the end zone. Best feeling ever.”
But the Demons would need only one play to tie the game once more. After a Howland kick return had Durango in decent field position, a personal foul for a late hit out of bounds gave Durango the ball across midfield. One play later, Woolverton was off to the races on a 47-yard TD run. He had an option to pitch it to Howland, saw the defensive end collapsing on Howland and decided to cut up field. He made one more cut and beat the chasing defenders to the corner of the end zone for the score.
“It was a nail-biter game. We’ve been in a couple of those this year and haven’t finished,” Woolverton said. “I’m so proud we finished this time. We came out slow, had some penalties kill us, but we cleaned it up after half. I couldn’t ask for a better team to play with.”
Durango’s defense played a big second quarter, as Woolverton forced a fumble that was recovered by Gage Mestas, and the Demons fell on another fumble deep in Eagles territory later in the second quarter.
But numerous holding penalties on the Demons prevented Durango from growing the lead any larger than 17-14. Woolverton also had a fumble in the first quarter and was intercepted in the second quarter by Pueblo East’s Herring.
It would be a tough loss for the Eagles, who were on the playoff bubble and likely needed a win to get into the playoffs.
“Honestly, Durango was one of the best teams we played all year. They’re ballers, and they just beat us,” Carrera said. “They outworked us, honestly. Their big boys just outworked our big boys. It was what it was.”
The Demons played their final game in the 3A South Central League against the Pueblo schools. It was the first time in four seasons the Demons have beat Pueblo East. Durango will move to a Colorado Springs-based league next season.
Durango will find out its playoff seed Sunday morning and will expect anything from Nos. 6 to 8 when the bracket comes out.
“We are glad for a home game and a good seed,” Vogt said. “We will play everybody. We played with Pueblo South, we will play with the best teams in the state. We are ready to roll.”