With a completely different team from last year, Ironwood Ridge football coach Matt Johnson was very eager to see his new product in action for the first time in Friday night’s season opener
Mother Nature had other plans.
The defending Division II state champion Nighthawks had to wait through a 1-hour 45-minute lightning delay before they took the field for the first time since last November’s 27-3 win over Peoria Centennial at Sun Devil Stadium.
And once I-Ridge finally did get on the field, it only lasted one half before another lightning interruption.
However, through nearly three hours of delays, the final outcome was worth the wait for Johnson and Nighthawks.
After falling behind Peoria Liberty 17-7 by halftime, I-Ridge rattled off 28 points in the third quarter and held on for a 42-40 win in a wild game that did not end until well after midnight.
“Liberty came out to play,” Johnson said. “You can tell they’ve got a squad that’s really well organized with a great game plan. We tried to do some stuff we thought they wouldn’t expect and, to they’re credit, they answered it so we were scrambling to come up with some adjustments.”
Although it was evident at times – especially throughout the first half – that the Nighthawks had to replace 21 of 22 starters since last year, it was also clear that the new squad carried some of the same qualities the team a year ago had.
“We have some great athletes and you can tell they’ve stepped up and progressed,” said junior linebacker Austin Goddard, the team’s lone returning starter. “Last year’s team was pretty special but I can see some similarities here. We’ve just got to take it one game at a time.”
One of the main things Friday night was how I-Ridge dominated with an up-tempo ground game as sophomore Cole McLafferty and senior Jake Vartanian combined for 357 yards and each scored three touchdowns.
“After he scored two and I scored two it became a competition between us,” said McLafferty, who rushed 34 times for 156 yards in his varsity debut. “This give me more confidence but I’ve got three more years to improve. Hopefully my senior year I’ll be 50-times better than this.”
Liberty, a Division III state quarterfinalist last year, scored on the first play from scrimmage when junior quarterback Tyler Wyatt broke loose for a 72-yard touchdown run up the middle on an option-keep.
After the Nighthawks punted away their first possession, Liberty drove 11 plays and went up 14-0 when Wyatt hit Bryce Utter for a 19-yard touchdown on third and 14.
But once I-Ridge’s offense began to get going, the rest of the team followed.
The Nighthawks got on the board early in the second quarter when McLafferty capped off a 14-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
From there, Liberty only scored three points the rest of the half and I-Ridge came out charged up and adjusted after a 45-minute lightning delay during the break.
McLafferty returned the opening kickoff to the Liberty 44 then three plays later Vartanian scored from one yard out to make it a three-point game.
It didn’t last long, however.
The Lions only needed three plays of their own to go up 24-14 after Wyatt broke loose for long 74-yard touchdown.
But then, the Nighthawks really began to take control of the game as the Lions began to wear out.
McLafferty scored 5-yard touchdown run on third and goal to make it 24-21 in favor of Liberty. Then, after the Lions went three-and-out, I-Ridge needed only four plays to take its first lead of the game.
On the second play of the drive, Vartanian galloped for a 19-yard gain and two plays later he cashed it in from 13 yards out to put I-Ridge up 28-24.
“We came out and had the first big drive and the momentum took it from there,” Vartanian said. “Everyone was pumped.”
Liberty did, however, regain the lead once more when Zach Neil broke loose for a 65-yard score, I-Ridge quickly took the lead back for good on a touchdown by McLafferty and then furthered its lead on a 74-yard run by Vartanian which made it 42-31 with eight minutes left in the game.
The Lions made it go down to the wire when Wyatt kicked a 25-yard field goal with 2:16 left in the game and then connected with Gage Lytle for a 44-yard touchdown with less than a minute to play. However, the two-point conversion failed and I-Ridge held on to win.
Johnson said one of his main concerns after the game was making sure his team knows how to close a team out. He also wants to clean up some of the little mistakes and penalties that made the game closer than it should have been.
“When we’re up by 11 and we’ve got a chance to put them away, with the ball, we’ve got to get it done,” he said. “We can’t look at each other and point fingers, we’ve just got to get it done.”
After opening up against a playoff team, I-Ridge’s schedule won’t get any easier. The Nighthawks travel to Cienega, Glendale Apollo and Canyon del Oro for the next three straight games before they return home to face Sierra Vista Buena on Sept 20.
Three of those four teams made the playoffs last year and Johnson expects CDO to make it this year, so it’s arguably the toughest opening stretch among Southern Arizona teams. But if the Nighthawks make it through in one piece, it could be very telling of how this season could play out.
“We could end up being a decent team,” Johnson said. “Right now, we’re a talented but sloppy team. That’s my job to try and clean it up.”