Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers
LAS CRUCES — It took the Clovis High defense a while to figure out Onate’s powerful option attack in Saturday’s Class 5A state semifinal playoff game at Field of Dreams.
Once they got into halftime with a tie, though, the Wildcats never looked back.
Juniors Brian Mead and Rishard Matthews each scored two touchdowns and the Clovis defense limited Onate to three first downs and 57 yards over the final two quarters in a 28-14 win over the Knights, moving the Cats into the state large-school finals for the 18th time in head coach Eric Roanhaus’ tenure.
The second-ranked Cats return to Field of Dreams next week, seeking their 11th crown under their long-time coach when they take on top-ranked Mayfield (13-0), making its fourth appearance in the title game in five years.
It’s a rematch of the season opener in Las Cruces, won by Mayfield 7-0.
Mead rushed for 217 yards on 20 carries against Onate, including touchdown runs of 64 yards on the Cats’ opening drive and 9 yards to clinch the win early in the final period. Matthews caught three passes for 59 yards, including a tying 44-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Devin Sweet in the second quarter, and carried an end-around 35 yards for the go-ahead TD early in the third period.
Once the Cats got ahead after halftime, the relative lack of a passing game proved difficult to overcome for the Knights (11-2), who moved up this year from Class 4A. Onate was 0-for-4 through the air.
“You can’t recreate that offense in practice,” Clovis defensive coordinator Darren Kelley said. “The last six games we’ve played against teams that have spread us out.
“We made our adjustments at halftime, changed some of our keys. Basically on defense, we had two mistakes that cost us the two touchdowns.”
Onate moved the ball almost at will throughout the first half, racking up 250 rushing yards. But most of it came on three long runs, and two fumbles by standout junior running back C.J. Oakley helped keep the game close.
The Cats immediately converted the second one into the tying score on the Sweet-to-Matthews TD strike.
“Most of the pressure (on the defense) was to the outside,” said senior tight end-defensive end Chris Finch. “After we knew we could shut that off, we started to feel pretty good.”
The Knights picked up two of their second-half first downs following the kickoff, but were forced to punt. The Cats went 80 yards in just three plays, with Mead breaking an inside run 43 yards to the Onate 35 on second down before Matthews took a handoff from Sweet, found a seam near left tackle, and left Knights defenders in his wake.
“Brian and the offensive line left a big hole there, and I just sprinted to the goalline,” said Matthews, who now has 20 TDs for the season, including six rushing scores.
Oakley, who was hit hard throughout the first half and had only three carries in the final two quarters, suffered his third fumble at the Onate 30 in the first minute of the final period.
Mead rambled 21 yards over right tackle on the first play, then went the same direction on a counter play for an insurance score.
“It was tough getting past their defense with all their stunts,” said Mead, who has 21 TDs for the season — 18 on the ground — and has rushed for more than 1,800 yards. “At halftime, we got our line keyed up and they started picking up their blocks.”
Despite struggling for much of the first half, the Cats played a solid game on offense. They finished with 364 total yards, had no turnovers and committed just one penalty on offense.
“The offense did a good job of scoring today,” Kelley said. “The defense was playing well enough that we could take some chances on offense. Brian had a heck of a game.”
After Mead’s opening touchdown, the Knights responded with an 11-play march that ended in an Oakley fumble at the Clovis 35 — on his seventh consecutive carry. The Knights, though, forced a three-and-out and went 71 yards for Oakley’s short TD run, set up by junior running back Lucas Daugherty’s 56-yard gallop to the Clovis 4 on a late option pitch from quarterback Steven Wells.
Daugherty then rambled 81 yards down the left sideline for a go-ahead score on a third-and-11 play with 7:48 left in the half. Daugherty maintained his balance and went in after Sweet chased him down from his safety position and tried unsuccessfully to knock him out of bounds.
Another Oakley fumble, this one recovered by nose guard Randy Cerda at the Knights’ 44, was followed on the next play by the Sweet-to-Matthews bomb to tie it.
Daugherty carried 11 times for 156 yards for Onate, but had six totes for a net of 17 yards in the second half. Oakley finished with 22 carries for 106 yards.
“When it came down to it, all their playoff experience playing this caliber of teams paid off in the third and fourth quarters,” Knights coach Kelly McKee said of the Cats.
“Where they’re at is where we want to take our program.”