LINCOLN — Caleb Francl’s knack for making big plays at crucial times helped Grand Island Senior High return to its winning ways.
Francl rushed 14 times for 99 yards and a touchdown and also had four receptions for 83 yards and another score as the Class A No. 7-rated (Omaha World-Herald) Islanders bounced back from their first loss of the season to beat Lincoln Southwest 34-13 Friday afternoon at Seacrest Field.
And Francl didn’t just power Grand Island’s offense — he also starred on defense and special teams as well.
The 6-foot, 170-pound senior had 10 total stops, including five tackles for loss and a sack, to go with a forced a fumble, a fumble recovery and a blocked point-after kick attempt.
“Caleb is just one of those guys who’s a really good, instinctive football player,” Grand Island coach Jeff Tomlin said. “You can’t really put it into words because he might not necessarily pass the eye test, getting off the bus, but at the bottom of the pile, you’re going to find No. 10 and a lot of times in the end zone, you’re going to find No. 10 or in the middle of a special teams play.
“Caleb provides us with extremely valuable football savvy when he’s out there.”
Francl helped Grand Island (7-1) get off to a fast start, hauling in a 50-yard TD pass from quarterback Carson Cahoy to give the Islanders a 7-0 lead on their first possession. Francl ran his route from out of the backfield, broke wide open into the middle of the field and then outraced the Silverhawks’ secondary for the score.
“We came in with a little bit of an edge after last year,” Francl said, referring to last year’s game against Southwest when the Silverhawks left Grand Island with a 21-7 victory over the eventual Class A state runner-up Islanders.
“We needed some momentum to get going. One of our goals is to start fast every week and we came out and did just that.”
Perhaps an even bigger play for Francl came with 6:11 left in the second quarter and Grand Island leading 7-0. With Southwest moving the ball deep into Islander territory, Francl recovered a fumble at the GISH 2-yard line.
On the next play from scrimmage, Francl ripped off a 27-yard run. That set the stage for Cahoy, who raced 71 yards for a TD run on the next play, putting the Islanders ahead 14-0 with 5:41 left before halftime.
“That was a big turn,” Tomlin said. “Hats off to the defense for not ever saying, ‘die.’ We got a turnover — that’s something we pride ourselves in.
“Our kids responded every time there was adversity. I’m proud of that.”
Francl’s resurgence as an impact player on offense the past two games has been a welcome sight for the Islanders. He rushed for 97 yards on 13 attempts in a season-opening win at Kearney, but suffered an ankle injury and logged just 10 combined carries in the three games leading up to his 104-yard rushing performance on 18 tries against Millard West on Oct. 11.
Tomlin said Francl’s return on offense gives Grand Island added running options and takes some of the load off of teammate Gaven Aken, who Tomlin credited for doing “yeoman’s work” in Francl’s absence.
“It’s huge because Caleb makes everybody around him better. He makes our offensive line better,” Tomlin said. “He’s got vision that’s uncommon and toughness. He runs behind his pads so well that he’s always going to get 3 or 4 (yards).”
Francl said he’s happy to once again be a two-way player after being rested on offense for several games due to nagging injuries.
“It’s really nice, especially since my ankle has been getting a lot better,” Francl said. “I’m not having as many problems making cuts, so it feels really good.”
Francl’s younger brother, Ben Francl, led Grand Island’s defense with 13 total tackles and a forced fumble. Nose tackle Daylon Keolavone had a sack and a fumble recovery as the Islanders allowed 332 total yards, but gave up just 62 yards rushing.
“I thought we held up pretty well,” Francl said of Grand Island’s defense. “There were one or two big plays that went their way, but other than that, we stopped them pretty well, especially in the running game.”
Quarterback Laken Harnly kept the Silverhawks (4-4) in the game, completing 19 of 26 pass attempts for 270 yards. His 71-yard TD pass to Grant McKinsey cut Grand Island’s lead to 27-13 with 1:40 left in the third quarter. McKinsey finished with eight receptions for 158 yards.
Cahoy also had a solid outing for Grand Island, completing 9 of 16 pass attempts for 161 yards and a TD. The 6-3, 180-pound senior rushed 10 times for 105 yards.
Islander place-kicker Braxton Mendez connected on field goals of 25 and 28 yards in the third quarter. Broc Douglass added 110 all-purpose yards for Grand Island.
Grand Island slowed its offensive tempo and melted time off the clock for most of the fourth quarter. A 1-yard TD plunge by Ace McKinnis with 2:14 remaining sealed the win for the Islanders, who return to Seacrest Field next Friday for their regular-season finale against Lincoln East.
“It’s a good win for us and, obviously, and an important win moving forward,” Tomlin said. “Now, we’ve got to get some guys healed up real quick because (Lincoln) East will be awful tough.”