The way the first half unfolded during the 4A quarterfinal matchup between No.1 Dakota Ridge and the No. 8 Montrose Indians at Englewood High School on Saturday, one could assume the Indians had softened a dominant Dakota Ridge defense that had allowed just 32 points through six games.
Montrose scored 21 first-half points, the most any opponent had scored against Dakota Ridge in a single game all season. The Eagles’ defense had allowed just six points in their past four games.
But a pair of early turnovers was all the momentum that was needed for Dakota Ridge, a team boasting several talented playmakers and one of the best offenses in 4A, averaging 51 points per game.
The Eagles took advantage, jumping out to a 21-0 lead through the first five minutes, and followed that script after another Montrose fumble in the third quarter to take a 41-21 lead.
Dakota Ridge continued the offensive onslaught in the second half to win 76-34 and advance to the semifinals to face No. 4 Loveland.
“The five turnovers really hurt us, it seemed like it was just some uncharacteristic mistakes from our ball carriers,” Montrose coach Brett Mertens said postgame. “Most of them were not even caused by the defense — just us not taking good care of the ball. Obviously, in a playoff game, if you lose the turnover battle five to zero, it’s pretty much never going to go your way.”
Turnovers hampered the Indians all afternoon. Fumbles and muffed handoffs seemed to be the norm, especially after the Indians regained offensive momentum, punishing the Eagles with their signature run game.
The Indians’ play didn’t emulate the way they had played all season, largely consisting of taking care of the football and dominating time of possession. And strangely, the mistakes occurred after the Indians trimmed the lead.
With 33 seconds remaining in the first half, Keagan Goodwin delivered a 25-yard touchdown to Eli Evans to cut the Eagles’ lead to 31-21, though a 41-yard field goal from Tilo Pena pushed it to 34-21 at halftime.
To start the third, the Indians moved the ball on a trio of plays before Austin Griffin fumbled, leading to an end-around touchdown run from Max Hart a few plays into the Eagles’ possession to increase the lead by 20 points.
After a pair of scores from Eagles running back Noah Triplett, the Indians’ resilience continued to emerge. At the Dakota Ridge 20, freshman Blake Griffin bounced to the outside on a carry and scored from 20 yards out. On the next series, a seven-play drive ended on a 1-yard touchdown run from Austin.
Despite the Eagles’ offensive push, the Indians seemed to be mounting their comeback. With the way the Indians’ offensive was moving, there was a chance to make the 4th quarter competitive.
However, it wasn’t long until those efforts were thwarted. Threatening in Eagles territory with more than 11 minutes to spare in the fourth and down three scores, Goodwin delivered a soft throw to the right that was intercepted and snatched by Dante Capolungo and returned to the Montrose 8.
One play later, Capolungo was awarded a chance to capitalize on his big play, and he did, scoring from eight yards to extend the lead to 63-34.
Dakota Ridge quarterback Ben Goltig was as advertised during Saturday’s game, finding wide receivers Mason Galbreath and Cavica Wilkerson for scores in the second half (another to Galbreath was called back due to penalty). Goltig added a rushing score in the first quarter and had a pair of second quarter runs to get the Eagles into enemy territory.
“We struggled on the defensive side today — part of that was also caused by some short fields, but if I’m being honest we didn’t compete very tough on that side of the ball,” Mertens said.
Montrose’s 34 points exceeded the total points Dakota Ridge had allowed through six games. The Indians’ offense, too, was strong, as running backs Austin (two) and Blake, Trent Blundell and Evans combined for five scores.
“Outside of the turnovers, our offense played pretty well actually,” Mertens said, “and we were able to do what we wanted to do. It would have been interesting to see how the game unfolded had we not turned it over on our first two possessions.”
The Eagles matched those 34 points, albeit in a different way. Dakota Ridge went 5-for-5 off Montrose turnovers (four fumbles, one interception), scoring five touchdowns, good for 35 points (or 46% of their point total on Saturday).
Though the Indians were unable to advance to the semifinals for the second time in three seasons, the team put together an interesting run after a tumultuous fall. Montrose played in one of the tougher 4A leagues this season, made the playoffs (for the fourth straight season) in a limited bracket and ran rampant against a talented Dakota Ridge team.
“Not the outcome we were hoping for, but still proud of these kids and happy that we got to have a season and play our last game in the playoffs,” Mertens said.
• According to Colorado Preps, records indicate the 76 points scored by Dakota Ridge is the fourth most scored in an 11-man playoff game. The Eagles blew past their average of 51 points per game, though it’s likely the Eagles would have hovered around their average minus the turnovers. Their offense was electric, scoring on 12 offensive possessions.
• The Griffin brothers, for the third time this season, scored in the same game. Blake had a long kickoff return and added a 57-yard run in the second half. The pair will have a chance to replicate their 2020 success next season as Blake will enter his second season and Austin will be a senior.
• The Indians were 0-2 when trailing at halftime (and 0-1 when trailing through three quarters) this season. Mertens spoke earlier this year about the team’s struggles when trailing, citing the importance of getting out to strong starts and maintaining it.
Josue Perez is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press