An emphasis on creating turnovers continues to pay dividends for Grand Island Senior High.
The No. 6-rated (Omaha World-Herald) Islanders recorded three takeaways — all on interceptions — on their way to a 35-14 victory over Lincoln Southwest Friday night in first-round play of the Class A state football playoffs at Memorial Stadium. Grand Island had a plus-three turnover margin for the game and is now plus-20 in turnover margin for the season.
“Defensively, that’s something we really work on,” Grand Island coach Jeff Tomlin said. “Our schemes are also conducive to creating turnovers. We play a little bit of man coverage, but not a ton. You can get more picks playing zone and play the option a little better.
“I thought our DBs came up really big tonight after having kind of a sub-par performance the last couple of weeks. Those guys really shined tonight.”
Safeties Broc Douglass and Blake Leiting and cornerback Alex Hinken all recorded interceptions for the Islanders (9-1). Douglass returned his interception 26 yards for a touchdown to give Grand Island a 14-0 first-quarter lead and Leiting brought his pick back 39 yards to the Silver Hawks’ 21-yard line to set up quarterback Carson Cahoy’s 1-yard plunge to make it 21-7 GISH with 3:42 left before halftime.
“There were some huge picks and just some good coverage all the way around,” Tomlin said. “Even the two touchdown passes that we gave up, we had pretty good coverage on both of them.
“We didn’t have any blown coverages all night. We were talking and communicating and doing everything that we teach our safeties and corners to do — they were stellar.”
Grand Island has forced 23 turnovers in 10 games with 14 interceptions. Leiting is in a four-way tie for the team lead with three picks.
“This group of defensive backs is pretty good at ball-hawking and the fumbles we have gotten are just the result of good team tackling where we have been able to get one or two guys there and the rest of the guys come in and start pulling for the ball,” Leiting said. “Every day in practice, we talk about team-tackling — 11 to the ball is what we call it — and make sure we get a lot of guys on the ball.”
After allowing 270 passing yards in a 34-13 win at Lincoln Southwest on Oct. 18, Grand Island limited Silver Hawks’ quarterback Laken Harnly to a 16-of-29 passing performance for 175 yards with three interceptions this time around.
“The last time we played Southwest, I felt like us as DBs didn’t play as well as we’re capable of and let a couple of touchdown passes get over our heads,” Leiting said. “This week, we did a lot better job and were able to make plays on almost everything and either pick it or knock it down.”
Leading 21-7, the Islanders used a 42-yard completion from Cahoy to Douglass to set up a 3-yard TD pass from the same duo with five seconds left before the intermission.
“The score right before halftime was really big because that was a huge momentum-shifter,” Tomlin said. “We had a great throw by Carson and a great catch by Broc to set that up and we were able to punch it in.
“We had a lot of contributors on offense, but I really thought Carson was sharp. He was poised when he got a lot of pressure and threw the ball away a couple of times and just lived to play another down. I thought the way he played was really indicative of how he’s matured as a quarterback.”
Despite facing a heavy pass rush at times, Cahoy completed 10 of 19 pass attempts for 131 yards and a TD. He also rushed 13 times for 41 yards and two more scores, including a 9-yard dive into the end zone to give Grand Island a three-TD lead with 2:14 left in the third quarter.
Douglass finished with seven receptions for 109 yards and a TD to go with his pick-six. Teammate Caleb Francl rushed 11 times for 83 yards and also recorded a team-high 13 total tackles.
Ben Fracl had 10 total tackles and Jaime Cortez added nine total stops for Grand Island, which advanced to play next Friday at No. 3-rated Millard South (9-1) in the state playoff quarterfinals.
“We’re thrilled to be able to go back to work (Saturday) morning as coaches and be able to practice next week and be with these guys for at least another week,” Tomlin said. “We know Millard South is a great program — we have a lot of respect for them — and will be a huge challenge for us, but we know that at this juncture, no matter who you draw is going to be a great team.”
After injuries prompted Leiting to take his junior year away from football, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior said his glad to be back with the program.
“I started missing it last year even before they made their playoff run,” Leiting said. “The brotherhood that you get from playing football is one of a kind and you don’t really realize it fully until it’s gone. Once it’s gone, you realize that you’re missing a huge part of your life.
“I’m just happy to be able to come back in my senior year and be a part of it.”