NASELLE — They say to beat the champ, you have to knock him out. The Comets did that emphatically Friday, crushing the defending state champion Neah Bay Red Devils 72-20 to advance to State quarterfinals.
A devastating wave of injuries, including to star Rwehabura Munyagi, weakened this season’s Red Devil team, which already had to reload after losing many “skill” position players to graduation. The Devils adapted by relying heavily on strong line play; in the words of the Peninsula Daily Herald, which covers the team, “most plays resemble a rugby scrum as ball carriers take the snap, bash into the line and hope for a slice of daylight.” Neah Bay was 4-5 in the regular season against a schedule featuring 1A, 2B, and elite 1B opponents, and beat a strong Crescent team 30-12 in the previous week’s play-in game.
With Cole Dorman, the Comets had a huge and obvious advantage at quarterback. However, the Comets opened with an offense heavy on runs and screen passes. “We were testing their line, to find out how good it was,” said coach Jeff Eaton. The Comets showed early that they were strong enough across the board to stick with a balanced offense, rather than asking Dorman to win it single-handedly.
Taking the lead
The Comets jumped on top when Josh Townsen took a screen pass 27 yards for a score, with the help of a big block by Nick Gaines. That capped a five-play, 65-yard drive. Antonio Nolan had averted disaster, recovering Erik Lund’s fumble on the opening play of the game; the play even went for a 12-yard gain.
After Ethan Lindstrom’s kickoff pinned Neah at the 11, the Comet defense handled the brute force of the Devils’ power formations, forcing a three-and-out. Nolan returned the punt 12 yards, setting up the Comets at the 28. Five plays later, Nolan scored standing up from the one-yard line, behind a block from fullback Erik Lund, putting Naselle up 14-0 less than six minutes in.
The Devils mixed up their formations, stacking the line with seven of their eight players on one play (a big gain was called back due to holding), then passing out of the swinging gate formation for a few plays. The Comets handled it, and Nolan’s 34-yard punt return set them up in Devil territory. A 22-yard deep ball to Lund, with 15 more yards tacked on for a roughing-the-passer penalty, put Naselle in scoring position again, where Dorman found Jacob Eaton for a nine-yard touchdown and a 20-0 lead with 8:36 in the half.
The Devils now had no choice but to open up their offense, and necessity bred success. Two deep completions led to a touchdown. However, on Neah’s next possession, Ethan Lindstrom rushed passer Josey Tyree, hitting him as he threw, and Vince Fauver made the diving interception at the Red Devil seven. Fa’aoso Tutu’u cashed in, catching a pass in space and scoring from five yards out. Lindstrom’s two-point conversion catch made it 28-6 with 1:52 in the half.
On the next play, Lindstrom essentially put the game away, scooping up a fumble on a Red Devil pitch play. With Lund’s two-point catch, that put the Comets ahead 36-6. The Devils had a solid drive before halftime, but Oggie Lopez made a touchdown-saving tackle on the final play of the half.
The victory was becoming a costly one as the Comets lost both their starting receivers. Jacob Eaton left with a thumb injury late in the first half. Josh Townsen badly injured his foot in the third quarter; it was initially feared to be broken, though that proved not to be the case. The coach said Tuesday that Eaton will be able to play Friday, but Townsen’s availability is uncertain. Ethan Lindstrom and Jack Ruch took over at the receiver spots in the Neah Bay game.
Neah continued completing deep balls in the second half, but Lopez and Jimmy Strange both came up with interceptions.
The Comets turned a surprise blowout into a truly monumental rout with big plays on kickoffs. Tutu’u ran down a Lindstrom kickoff and pounced on it at the 18-yard line before any Devils touched it, stealing possession and setting up a score. Lindstrom followed another Comet touchdown by bouncing a kickoff inside the ten, where the returner chased it down and had to run sideways. Lindstrom, sprinting all the way downfield, forced a fumble into the end zone for a safety, which made it 66-12. On their possession resulting from the safety, the Comets scored on a 20-yard run by Tutu’u to make it 72-12 with 7:03 remaining.
With the win, the Comets proved that their dominance isn’t limited to Coastal League opponents. The Comets will face the Almira-Coulee Hartline Warriors and quarterback Maguire Isaak (74 of 110, 1473 yards, 29 TD, 1 interception; 14 rushing touchdowns, 880 rushing yards on 9.0 per carry) in State quarterfinals, Saturday at 1:00 pm in Montesano.
The Warriors are coming off a 72-46 win over Colton at Districts. They went 8-2 in the regular season, losing only to the two favorites for the State title: Sunnyside Christian in week one by a 34-20 score, and Odessa in late October 64-54. Parker Zappone has averaged 29.5 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on just 20 catches on the season. However, the Warriors run more than they pass and average 8.2 yards per carry.