STILLMAN VALLEY – No matter what Dixon tried on defense, it was difficult slowing the Stillman Valley running game in a 32-6 loss to the Cardinals in a Class 4A first-round playoff game.
Even with the Dukes stacking nine in the box, Stillman Valley pounded first down after first down on its way to 196 yards rushing in the first half alone.
Dixon got a taste of that on SV's first drive, as the brutally efficient no-huddle offense averaged 22 seconds a play in going 68 yards in nine snaps for an early 8-0 lead.
To Dixon's credit, they shut down the Cardinals' next two drives with fourth-down stops, the last a 4-yard quarterback sack by Kade Frey.
"I thought we had great defensive stops," Dixon coach Dave Smith said. "Stillman Valley has great fundamentals. They run hard and stay on their blocks."
After Frey's stop, the Dukes put together their best drive of the first half, advancing from the 10-yard line to midfield. Jacob Shafer and Jacob Gaither connected on a pair of passes to key it.
Unfortunately, Grant McClendon stopped the drive by intercepting a Shafer pass. Taking over at the Duke 48-yard line, Stillman made it 15-0 on Logan Jennings' second touchdown of the game.
"Key penalties [nine for 75 yards] and interceptions hurts us," Smith said. "The ball didn't bounce our way."
Evidence of that was Shafer's first interception that bounced off a receiver.
The lone punt of the game by either team left Stillman Valley with its third straight possession inside Duke territory. Taking advantage of the field position, quarterback Chad Gerig drove his team to the 20-yard line, where Omar Gallardo kicked a field goal as time expired in the half. That gave the Cardinals an 18-0 lead.
"Other than a couple drives where they stopped us, we played pretty well," Cardinals coach Mike Lalor said. "After last week [a loss to Genoa-Kingston], our seniors bounced back."
With Sebastian Quintana (24 carries, 128 yards) getting the bulk of carries, Dixon took the opening kick of the second half and moved into Cardinal territory. Once again, the drive stalled on a failed fourth-down attempt.
Stillman Valley made the Dukes pay with a fourth-down conversion of its own. Devin Willis got behind the Dixon defensive backfield and took a 29-yard pass from Gerig to the house for a 25-0 lead.
Late in the third quarter, Smith made a change at quarterback and brought the sophomore Gaither in.
"Things weren't working for us," Smith said. "But, Jacob was the one that got us here. I love him to death."
Gaither used his scrambling ability and arm to get the Dixon offense moving, but three penalties stymied the drive near midfield.
If there was any doubt to the game's final outcome, Willis effectively put the game away with a touchdown on the next play. He made a nifty cut at the line, breaking free from the grasp of two Dukes, and then stiff-armed the final defender for the 32-0 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Hunter Pate caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Gaither on a fourth down to prevent a shutdown. The Dukes also advanced to the 5-yard line in the waning minutes, but fumbled the ball away.
"We battled and did our best," Duke linebacker Garrett Helfrich said.