The first of what will be many victorious postgame huddles in the John Kemper era was short, sweet and simple.
The new Tigard head football coach stressed there is work to be done, penalties to polish up, intricacies to hone. The Tigers weren't perfect in their season opener against Sunset. But they were fast, physical and unafraid to execute its newfound spread offense in the pivotal moments against an Apollo squad stacked with All-Metro League returners.
All things considered, for a season opener, Tigard looked once again like a Three Rivers League title contender, ripping off 28 unanswered points in the second half put away a talented Apollo squad, 45-22, at Sunset High School on Friday night.
"It was a great team effort," Kemper said. "We did some good things offensively, defensively. We had great effort and our guys never stopped playing. They never gave up. They battled adversity and kept plugging away. We'll continue to plug away and get better. We'll enjoy it tonight, but it's right back to work tomorrow."
"It feels good, but we have a lot to work on," Tigard senior running back Hunter Gilbert said. "It was the first game and we were really nervous. We were playing blind and were too worried. But we settled down and opened it up. We started playing football instead of messing around."
Tigard rolled up 561 yards of total offense, 371 of which came on the ground. Gilbert was a beast, rushing for 188 yards on 22 carries and a touchdown. Burns added two scores and 86 yards with Hewitt Sullivan (40 yards on six totes) and Mathew Otness (21 yards on 2 carries) chipping in. The Tigers' newly implemented spread offense got its playmakers out in space and let them use their speed and athleticism on the perimeter. Senior wide receiver Max Lenzy caught seven passes for 73 yards and two scores. Gilbert and Andrew Carter ripped off chunk plays, either off play-action passes or option routes out in the flats. Junior quarterback Drew Carter was efficient and protective of the pigskin, completing 16 of 22 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. Sunset's defense is inexperienced, but with studs like Nate Archibald, Kylie Sagon, Connor Stevens and defensive tackle Ika Nguamo in the lineup, racking up nearly 600 yards of offense is no small feat.
"We kept grinding on them," Kemper said. "We've leaned heavily on our run game in the past and continue to do so. It wears guys out. Sunset has some big dudes upfront and they play hard and play physical. It was no easy task. We were fortunate enough to get out and pull away a little bit."
The Apollos certainly showed flashes of a conference contender themselves, especially through the first two and half quarters or so. Midway through the first quarter Sunset senior quarterback Callum Craig threw a jump ball toward Archibald, who was mirrored stride for stride by his good buddy Burns downfield. But Archibald jumped and plucked the ball right off the top of the Tigard defensive back's helmet, shed his offseason training partner with a slight shove to the turf and galloped down the right sideline for the 47-yard touchdown that gave Sunset a 7-0 lead.
"We've run plays that like on each other before," Burns said with a smile. "(Archibald) has run fade (routes) on me and I had feeling something like that was going to happen. Props to Nate. He went out there and got the ball. He just outplayed me on that one. And Sunset as a whole has improved a lot from last year. Good luck to them this season. I think this game will end up being great for both of us."
Craig kept plays alive with his electric athleticism, whipping highlight-reel throws to Archibald, Jalen Owens and Evan Huntington. Sagon was Sunset's energizer on both sides of the ball, catching passes out of the backfield, bullying defenders for big gains in the run game, making tackles behind the line of scrimmage. With 30 seconds left in the first half, Sagon took a handoff from Craig, bounced it outside, hit the afterburners down the left sideline, somehow stayed in bounds and stretched the ball across the pylon for six just as the Tiger secondary converged on the dynamo. Craig's PAT cut Tigard's to 17-14 at the half. Ngauamo made a second home in the Tigard backfield and often forced the Tigers to run away from his side of the defensive line. Stevens roamed the middle with power and picked up a couple of big first downs in short-yardage situations as Sunset's fullback. The Apollos were a play or two away from the quarterfinals a season ago. With strong senior leadership and stars manning key spots on both sides of the ball, specifically on defense, Archibald feels Sunset's opening showing was a stepping stone toward the future.
"I feel like this group knows how to get to the playoffs and stay in the playoffs," Archibald said. "I think we can make a deep run."
For two and a half quarters, Sunset played confidently and collectively. Then, in a matter of moments, Tigard took it all away. First, Tigard's Sullivan started the momentum shift with an interception right in front of Sunset's sideline with just over four minutes to go in the third with the Tigers nursing a slim17-14 lead.
From the 4:56 mark in the third quarter through the 8:34 mark in the fourth, Tigard scored four touchdowns. Three of those came within two minutes of each other in a devastating 21-point fourth-quarter spree. The explosion, however, may have never got off the ground if not for the guts of Kemper and the execution of his players. Facing a 4th and 8 from the Sunset 38-yard line, the rookie head coach elected to go for it, placing his trust in an offense that had yet to get it humming in the second half. But that faith was rewarded as Carter hit a wide-open Lenzy up the left seam. The explosive pass-catcher did the rest, crisscrossing the gridiron through the Apollo secondary to pay dirt for a critical 38-yard touchdown. Jackson Cleaver's made it 24-14 with 4:20 to go. A game that had a toss-up feel to it early, suddenly swung Tigard's way. Sunset pinned the Tigers inside their own two-yard line with a brilliant punt from Craig, yet Gilbert blasted a 49-yard run to give his offense some much-needed breathing room. Later on the same drive, on fourth and goal from the Sunset 2, Carter executed a textbook play-action fake, rolled right and hit Kameron Hosley, who was wide open in the end zone for the two-yard score to extend Tigard's lead to 31-14 with 10:32 to go in the fourth. With Sunset selling out to stop the run, Kemper and his staff dialed up the naked bootleg and converted their second fourth conversion into points.
"I think our offense has the potential to be better than we were last year," Burns said. "It's unique. We have a little bit more of an athletic team, so the new offense works well for us, we just have to keep learning it and getting those explosive plays."
After a failed Sunset fourth-down conversion, Gilbert took a handoff 55 yards to the house on the very next play from scrimmage to make it 38-14. Then Gilbert added another highlight to his Hudl reel, picking off a tipped Craig pass and taking it back to the Apollo 7. On the next play, Burns raced around the right side off the sealed off the offensive line and out the ball in the paint for another six. Cleaver's PAT made it 45-14 with 8:34 left.
Tigard held Sunset's normally denotative offense to just 275 total yards of offense. Cole Scott and Bryce Goetz each had two sacks apiece. Scott led the Tigers with eight tackles and Goetz added six. Goetz, Johnny Nomani, Erik Schulz, Brayden Zolkoske and Owen Hagen were huge in helping their backs find open grass in the ground game by peeling off Apollo linemen and paving holes that were easy to speed through.
Sunset senior Antonio Hernandez's 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown put a little bit more pep in the Apollos' step, as did Stevens' two-point conversion jump pass to Huntington. But the contest had long been decided for a Tiger team that was already looking for more as it goes back on the road at Barlow next Friday.
"I'm happy with how it turned out, but I'm not satisfied at all with how we played," Burns said. "We know what we need to work on. I feel like we'll bounce back and be even better next week."
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