Defensive Tigers

Grand Junction relies on its defense to top rival Central

Grand Junction’s Jamis Utt, 27, runs away from a Central defender during the first half Friday night for some of his 42 yards in the Tigers’ 21-0 victory at Stocker Stadium. Grand Junction’s ground game and its defense were key in the team’s first shutout since 2013.

Central quarterback Max Marsh sets his feet before throwing Friday night as Grand Junction’s Giangelo Castaneda closes in during the first half of the Warriors’ 21-0 loss at Stocker Stadium. Marsh threw for 164 yards and had two interceptions in Central’s loss.

The Grand Junction High School football team heard it over and over again last year — this defense is young. Tigers coach Mike Sirko bellowed the refrain to the team and said it in media interviews.

Strive, persevere and all that youthful effort will amount to something.

Grand Junction saw its hard work pay off Friday, turning in its first shutout since 2013 with a 21-0 win over Central at Stocker Stadium.

The Tigers (1-0) flew to the ball and disrupted Central’s passing game, intercepting two passes against the Warriors (0-2). One of Grand Junction’s two touchdowns came on a scoop-and-score when defenders swarmed a Central running back and defensive lineman Donovan Andrus sprinted away with the football.

The defensive intensity and execution was exactly what Sirko wanted to see.

“Oh man, that’s what we counted on,” Sirko said. “That’s all we’ve told them. A whole lot of them are back from last year and they were sophomores. A lot of ‘em are still juniors and they played their hearts out. I’ll tell you what, we were moving the ball, but it was those defensive guys who kept them out of the end zone and that was absolutely huge for us.”

Grand Junction only had one offensive touchdown, but consistently ground its way down the field and ate up the clock.

The Tigers dwarfed the Warriors’ time of possession with 35 minutes, 58 seconds to Central’s 12:02. Three backs, plus quarterback Clay Payne, combined for the majority of the Tigers’ 172 yards on the ground.

Fullback Logan Grossnickle hammered out 20 carries for 49 yards, running back Jamis Utt had 10 carries for 42 yards and running back Nick Burke had 11 carries for 41 yards.

Receiver Dante Gonzalez took a reverse 11 yards for the only offensive touchdown.

“That’s what we like to do,” Sirko said. “We get the chance, we’ll throw the ball. We feel we get chances to do that. But I’ll tell you what, we’ve got to pound that ground, baby. That’s what we’re all about.”

Payne added nine carries for 20 yards on option keepers. He provided stability and ball security under center, as well as a tricky hard count. The senior caught Central offsides four times — three times to convert first downs — and otherwise operated with a very quick snap count.

Grand Junction usually steps up to the line of scrimmage and immediately snaps the ball, something that Sirko says places an enormous amount of pressure on a quarterback. For Payne to step into the varsity spotlight for the first time and shine is impressive, the coach said.

“Doing that quick huddle and stuff, he has to take on a lot of things,” Sirko said. “He did that and I’m really proud of him. He sure showed some senior leadership tonight.”

Grand Junction kicker Joe Carol provided all the first-half scoring, hitting from 26 and 30 yards in the second quarter. The Tigers pounded away at the Warriors’ defense, but never found the end zone, rushing for 63 yards in the first half.

Central’s offense, although good for more yardage, had similar issues.

Quarterback Max Marsh completed 11 of 20 passes for 111 yards in the first half, including the final drive before the break, where the sophomore completed 5 of 11 passes for 70 yards. The drive was sparked by Marsh on 3rd and 5, when he took a big hit as he completed a 20-yard pass to Trey Ehlers. The drive ended on a 15-yard completion to Josh Schuett, who unsuccessfully tried to dive out of bounds at the 5-yard line as the clock ran out.

Central has been held scoreless for seven of the past eight quarters in regulation, as well as one overtime period against Palisade.

Marsh completed 17 of 34 passes for 164 yards.


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