Johnson, defense, lead Magic past Rocori to 6-1
For the first 36 minutes of Friday night’s game at Rocori, the Monticello defense did everything that could logically be asked of them, keeping a hard-fought game tied at zero.
But as the fourth quarter began, and the offense continued to struggle, it became apparent that the defense had to do even more.
So, Sam Johnson did.
With 10 minutes remaining in the game, and Rocori driving, the junior stepped in front of a Spartan pass at the Monticello 13-yard line and returned it all the way to the end zone, breaking the goose egg on the Magic side of the scoreboard. Jakob Kounkel added the extra point and that would prove to be all the Magic needed to notch a 7-0 victory.
The Magic won despite mustering very little offense after the first two drives of the game, and despite turning the ball over a season high five times.
“I really felt like we should have done better,” said Coach Jason Telecky. “Offensively, it just seemed like we found ways to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
In the first half that included squandering a red zone trip (getting stopped on fourth and three at the 8-yard line) on the game’s first drive, and turning the ball over just outside the red zone on their second possession.
In the second half, it became more about a lack of opportunities against the defending 4A state champions, rather than missed opportunities.
“After the first two drives, both sides settled into a defensive struggle,” said Telecky.
As strong as Rocori’s defense looked in standing up the Magic running game and forcing turnovers, Monticello’s always seemed to be just a bit better. The visitors didn’t allow a Spartan first down until the fifth possession of the game. They didn’t allow a second and third first down until a meaningless couple plays deep in Rocori’s own territory as the first half wound down. In the first half, the Magic defense controlled field position, and really, the field.
“The defense was incredible,” said Telecky.
It started with a second straight week of the Magic successfully disguising their coverage. Bluffing blitzes, hiding blitzes, and standing up their defensive linemen all kept the Spartans’ offense off-balance through the night.
It continued with the Magic controlling the line of scrimmage, evidenced by their defensive lines absurd statistics. Led by Birk Olson with 14, three defensive linemen finished the game with double digit tackles, a statistical rarity.
And it finished with a number of guys making the necessary plays when they put themselves in the right position. With the exception of one dropped interception in the first half, the defense took advantage of seemingly every big play opportunity.
In the second half, Rocori threatened a few more times than in the first half. That was due in part to a couple more offensive first downs, and largely to three Magic turnovers in the second half. But every time the Spartans got close, someone stepped up.
“Anytime they put together a decent threat, we answered with a big play on defense,” said Telecky.
In the first half, Hayden Laimer had responded to a Magic turnover at midfield by picking off a pass on the very next play.
In the second half, it was more of the same. Rocori took the opening kick and moved the ball into Magic territory. But when they tried to throw a seam pass on second down, Johnson, a safety, stepped in front for his first interception of the season. The Magic offense showed life, as Jake Olson went 20 yards on a first down run, and the visitors eventually moved the ball to Rocori’s 36. But after another fumble, it was again Spartans’ ball. The defense forced a stop; the Magic turned it back over.
Then, as the third quarter rolled to the fourth, it looked like Rocori was finally ready to make Monticello pay. The Spartans’ offense was starting to click as they moved the ball near the Magic red zone. Then, from the 25-yard line, Rocori’s quarterback looked left, threw left, and missed left. Again, Johnson was there to secure the interception, and this time he found some running room.
Johnson, an All-State sprinter, took off down the near sideline. After outrunning most of the defense, he changed course and crossed the field near the Rocori 20. That cutback and his speed helped him be the first to the goal line as the 87-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Monticello a 7-0 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
With the offense lacking confidence Telecky pointed out that it was a huge effort for Johnson to get all the way into the end zone to secure the touchdown.
“Honestly, if he got tackled on the five, we might have been kicking a field goal,” he said.
But, Johnson finished the play. And the Magic finished the Spartans.
Rocori twice moved back into Magic territory in the final minutes, but both times Monticello held. With a few minutes left, Monticello got a fourth down stop at their own 37-yard line. Then, with just a minute left and Rocori again at the 37-yard line, the defense made one last play. A bad throw fluttered to Michael Witschen, and the linebacker squeezed it tight for Monticello’s fourth and final interception. From there, the Magic ran down the clock on their sixth, and likely ugliest, victory of the season.
Telecky may not have been thrilled with the offensive production, or amount of turnovers. But the coach did recognize that the Magic had held onto one big opportunity, the ability to win the conference and earn the top seed in section without having to worry about what anyone else does.
“A win is a win,” said Telecky. “We kept everything under our control, we can still take care of business. You can’t ask for anything more.”