Topeka Washburn Rural ran all over the Free State High football team in the first half of Friday's Class 6A district finale.
But the Firebirds reversed the trend in the second half and shut down the Junior Blues for a 20-12 win, earning a trip to the playoffs for the second straight year.
Well, reversed may be an oversimplification.
Washburn (5-4, 1-2) ran wild on the Firebirds, racking up 209 total yards in the first half, 131 on the ground. Junior running back Josh Kulick had 118 yards by himself, including a couple of touchdowns.
Free State (7-2, 2-1), on the other hand, managed just 69 first-half rushing yards and 43 passing yards. Things looked bleak, but FSHS coach Bob Lisher and his staff made a couple of defensive adjustments.
"The main thing we did was stepped up defensively in the second half," Lisher said. "That was the key to winning the football game."
Washburn didn't complete a pass in the second half and was held to 13 yards rushing on 29 attempts. Junior Blues coach Aaron Barnett was flabbergasted.
"They did a 180," Barnett said. "I've never seen a team dominate like that in the first half, then get dominated in the second half."
It started when FSHS forced Washburn to punt on its first possession of the second half Â its first punt of the night Â and the Firebirds took the resulting possession 81 yards for its first score of the night. Quarterback Matt Berner was huge, completing four of five passes for 68 yards and taking the ball in from the two-yard line.
After forcing another Washburn punt, Free State turned the ball over on downs after being unable to establish the run and just missing on back-to-back passes.
"We wanted to be able to run the football," Lisher said. "But Washburn Rural did a good job taking away the run. We didn't have a good enough push in the mud like we normally get."
It didn't matter because the Firebirds made three huge plays which helped them keep the momentum.
First, Washburn, punting from its own 41, snapped the football over punter Kyle Kelly's head. Kelly recovered at the 12, tried to run, then tried to pass, but fumbled the football. Free State's Tyler Morgan recovered the ball and rumbled into the end zone.
FSHS forced another punt two minutes later, which junior Dain Dillingham returned 34 yards to the Washburn 12. Berner found Bijai Jones in the corner of the end zone on the next play, and the Firebirds had their first lead.
"That was the first resemblance of a punt return that we had all year," Lisher said. "Tyler Morgan made a great downfield block, and Dain takes it down. Those are the types of plays you have to make in order to win games this time of year."
It wasn't over, because the Junior Blues returned the kickoff 40 yards to the FSHS 35. Seven plays later, they had a fourth-and-seven at the FSHS 17 when Mark Case tackled Kulick in the backfield, sealing the win.
That makes the Firebirds the second team to qualify out of district 4, along with Lawrence High. They'll probably play Shawnee Mission East next Friday in the first round of the playoffs.
Winning that game now becomes Free State's focus.
"We matched our best record, which was 7-2 in 1999," Lisher said. "These seniors can be proud of that. But now our goal is to win a playoff game. That's it."