CEDAR FALLS — It promised to be a highly-competitive football game, but it played out differently than expected.
South Winneshiek and West Branch fielded two powerful offenses, but defense stole the show.
The Warriors’ defensive effort was slightly better, powering the ninth-ranked Warriors into their first ever state championship game after beating No. 3 West Branch, 14-7, in a Class 1A state semifinal Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
The Warriors advance to face No. 2 Council Bluffs St. Albert (13-0), which trounced No. 4 Prairie Valley, 49-21. The 1A championship game is Saturday, Nov. 21 at 10:05 a.m.
“I have goose bumps all over,” South Winn running back/linebacker Dakota Smith said. “South Winn hasn’t won a playoff game until this year. Now we’re in the big dance, so it’s going to be awesome.”
South Winneshiek set the tone immediately on the first drive of the game. The Warriors’ high-powered, quick-scoring spread offense marched 80 yards on 17 plays, burning the first 8 minutes and 33 seconds.
That isn’t the Warriors’ forte, but they’ve adapted in the playoffs against stiffer defenses.
“We want to score and score quick,” South Winneshiek Coach Jason Ohrt said. “We’ve had to take a turn a bit in the postseason a little bit. I can’t give our kids enough credit for being able to maintain and do that,”
South Winn (12-1) methodically moved down the field, tallying six first downs and running all but once. Smith’s 10-yard run to convert a third down was the longest. Smith capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge and Denny Sander punched it in for give the Warriors an 8-0 lead.
Warriors standout running back Jordan Andera, who rushed for 41 yards on the first drive, said the start was huge.
“We didn’t have any real huge play on that drive,” said Andera, who finished with 101 rushing yards. “That’s a tribute to our line,”
Andera was a difference maker for the Warriors on both sides of the ball. Andera bolted for a 33-yard touchdown take the handoff in South Winn’s wildcat-like play, making it 14-7 three plays after West Branch turned the ball over at its 46 on a Cole Kelly fumble.
Andera almost broke that play earlier.
“Next time we ran it, Jon Hackman made a great block and they didn’t really know where the ball was by the time I was at the 10-yard line,” Andera said. “I had one guy to beat.”
Andera hadn’t played a big role on defense in the postseason, attempting to keep him fresh. He was a big factor Saturday, nabbing two of South Winn’s three picks.
“You can put that kid anywhere and he’ll make plays,” Ohrt said. “That’s just the kind of player he is. He’s our leader.”
The Warriors’ defense has been battle tested this season and they led the way, forcing four turnovers and stopping the Bears when needed.
“When you go out there against a great team we know we can do it because we’ve done it against great teams all year,” Andera said.
So when the Warriors faced a 4h-and-1 in the last half of the fourth quarter Ohrt didn’t hesitate to go for it. They were stuffed but South Winn held thanks to Andera’s second interception.
“We were going to take chance,” Ohrt said. “We believe in our kids. I had no doubt if we didn’t get it, which we didn’t, they were going to stop them.”
Ohrt said it was nerve-racking, but fun to watch and excited for his team to take the field next Saturday in the championship.
“They’re hungry,” Ohrt said. “they want it. They’ve worked harder than anybody else, I guarantee you that. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
West Branch (12-1) had too many miscues to overcome. Late mistakes hampered the Bears each time they attempted to rally.
“You can’t have penalties and that many turnovers in a big game like that,” said West Branch Coach Butch Pedersen, whose team was penalized seven times for 45 yards. “The effort, the hustle, the heart, the desire was there, but we shot ourselves in the foot too many times.”
Kelly shined for the Bears, rushing for 127 yards.
“He’s just a phenomenal athlete,” Pedersen said of Kelly, a senior.
He was a key to West Branch’s only scoring drive, running for 48 yards setting up a Travis Kaufman 1-yard run that capped an 72-yard, 8-play drive. It made the score 8-7, seconds into the second quarter.
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