The Durango Demons scored in flurries on a windy Saturday afternoon at Dutch Clark Stadium in Pueblo.
No. 3 Durango High School (4-0, 2-0 3A South Central League) started with 21 points in the first quarter. With a 21-14 lead at halftime, the Demons then outscored the No. 12 Pueblo East Eagles 24-0 in the third quarter with the wind at their back. The burst helped send DHS to a 45-20 victory to remain unbeaten with one week to play in the shortened regular season, as fall football has played through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have never been so driven as a team. The atmosphere with the guys is like no other,” DHS senior Ben Finneseth said. “We just want to keep winning, and we know what it takes.”
On top of five rushing touchdowns, Durango also forced four turnovers in the game, including two fumbles on kick returns. The Demons turned those takeaways into 17 points.
“Good teams are going to do that,” DHS head coach David Vogt said. “We emphasize and talk all the time about capitalizing on turnovers. Those are big momentum shifts, and I am really proud of us taking advantage of that and shifting the momentum of the game.”
DHS senior quarterback Jordan Woolverton had the first two rushing scores for DHS. Junior running back Nate Messier broke free on a 32-yard TD run, and Finneseth added two rushing touchdowns in the third quarter.
Woolverton also connected with Niko Mestas on a 25-yard TD pass in the third quarter that effectively put the game away. The DHS field goal came from Sam Carozza on a 37-yard attempt late in the third quarter that made it 45-14.
It was another strong performance from the DHS offensive line, which was without starting left guard Rocco Estes on Saturday.
“Our line is special,” Finneseth said. “Our success is based off of them, and those guys work together so well. I was interested in how they were going to communicate without Rocco Estes, but Will Knight and Demetrius Trujillo really stepped up big time. They all just work so well together when they’re focused, and they’re unstoppable when that happens.”
DHS trailed 6-0 in the first quarter after Pueblo East got the ball first and went 52 yards in 10 plays. Eagles quarterback Jaxson Herring scored on a 1-yard touchdown run, but a 2-point conversion try was not successful. The 6-0 deficit was the first time the Demons have trailed in a game this year.
But the hole wasn’t too deep for DHS. After Pueblo East tried an early onside kick of its own, DHS had the ball at midfield. Durango faced a critical fourth-and-12 on the drive, but Woolverton hit Finneseth on a big first-down pass to extend the drive.
“I ran a comeback. (The cornerback) was really soft in coverage because he didn’t want to get beat deep, so I acted like I was running a fade and then snapped it off and came back to the ball,” Finneseth said.
Woolverton hit Finneseth with a perfect pass. Moments later, Woolverton would score on a 5-yard TD run. Carozza made the extra point, and Durango led 7-6 and would not trail again the rest of the game.
“It was good for us to have some adversity there early,” Vogt said. “To come back and respond how we did, I was proud of the boys.”
Durango’s defense settled in on the second East possession of the game and created two sacks to force a quick punt.
The DHS offense got the ball on the Pueblo East 45-yard line. Woolverton would hit Chase Robertson with a 32-yard pass to set up a 1-yard Woolverton TD run that made it 14-6 Durango with 40 seconds to play in the first quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, East muffed the ball and Durango’s Ford Pitts recovered. Pitts returned it for a touchdown. But, per rules, a muffed kick cannot be advanced if recovered by the kicking team. So, DHS took the ball on the East 32-yard line. One play later, Messier broke free for his long TD run to make it 21-6 Demons with 25 seconds to go in the first quarter.
Ean Goodwin would make a big defensive play for DHS on the Eagles’ next possession. He made a solid tackle against his wide receiver on third-and-short to limit the Eagles to one yard and force another punt.
Durango’s next drive was derailed by a penalty, and Pueblo East got the ball back on its own 26-yard line. Herring mounted a 74-yard drive and finished it with a 1-yard TD run. This time, a 2-point conversion try was successful, and the DHS lead was trimmed to 21-14 going into halftime.
The wind picked up in the third quarter. The Eagles opted to have the help of the wind for the fourth quarter instead of the third, but the plan backfired as DHS had the game put away before the fourth quarter while the Eagles’ offense struggled going into the wind.
A 3-yard punt on fourth-and-22 gave DHS the ball on the Pueblo East 22. Finneseth ripped off runs of 18 and four yards and scored on the latter to give DHS a 28-14 lead with 8:18 to go in the third quarter.
Pueblo East would go for a fourth-and-1 in its own territory on its next possession, but Pitts would sack Herring on the East 29-yard line to give the ball right back to the Demons with a short field. On third-and-13, Woolverton would hit Finneseth on another laser pass for a big first down, as Finneseth fought for control of the ball with a defender who had good coverage. Finneseth then would break a 14-yard TD run to make it 35-14 in favor of the Demons with 4:03 to go in the third quarter.
Pueblo East would again fumble on a kickoff return after a big hit by the Demons. That gave DHS the ball on the East 25-yard line. One play later, Woolverton hit Mestas on a 25-yard TD pass that had it 42-14 Demons.
It was another fumble for East on its next possession, this time as Herring tossed a pitch behind running back Orly Mondragon. Durango recovered on the East 17-yard line. Four plays later, Carozza hit on a 37-yard field goal.
Content with a big lead, DHS didn’t have to do much in the fourth quarter and went to freshman quarterback Tyler Harms and sophomore running back Jeric Baruch.
East would get a late score on a 12-yard pass from Herring to Brendon Harding, who ran a slant pattern in front of Robertson.
But any chance of a late East surge was ended quickly. After East recovered an onside kick, Herring would be intercepted by Durango sophomore Zachary Haber, his second interception of the season and Durango’s eighth. That effectively ended the game.
DHS did suffer one loss in the game. Star senior Gage Mestas, who had two big runs early in the game, was lost on Durango’s first drive of the game to a concussion. He was hit in the head with a hard forearm while trying to make a third-down reception and left the game with a concussion. There was no penalty flag on the play. That altered Durango’s offense and special teams returns in a big way.
At 2-0 in the league, the Demons will look to make it a perfect regular season in a critical 6 p.m. Friday game against Cañon City (3-1, 3-1 SCL). DHS will be at home for only the second time this season.
Cañon City fell 26-21 in an epic clash with No. 5 Pueblo South (3-0, 3-0 SCL) on Friday night. Durango and South were supposed to play Week 1 before a positive COVID-19 case for the Colts canceled the game on the eve of the season opener.
It is unclear how a league champion would be decided if Durango and South both win next week. Vogt has never won a league title in his eight seasons as head coach.
“Our goal is always to go undefeated,” Vogt said. “To have that opportunity is huge. I’ve never won a league title, and we’d love to do that even though it doesn’t mean an automatic spot in the playoffs this year.”
DHS, ranked No. 3 in the state, will move up at least one spot after No. 2 Lutheran lost Friday night 38-14 to Holy Family.
A win Friday night likely would give DHS one of the top-two seeds for the eight-team Class 3A state playoffs, guaranteeing the Demons a home game in the state quarterfinals.
“That would be amazing. That’s all we can talk about,” Finneseth said. “We’re just going to keep pounding and keep working hard every day. Cañon City is going to be the best team that we’ve played. But we are just going to continue doing our thing, outworking everybody.”