The 35-0 lead was a distant memory.
The new reality for St. Thomas Aquinas was a 14-point lead after the Wichita Northwest offense had sprung to life with three straight touchdowns in less than 10 minutes in the second half of Saturday’s Kansas Class 5A championship game.
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And now Northwest’s defense was poised for its third straight stop, as it had backed Aquinas’ run-dominant offense into a 3rd-and-16 with still nine minutes left in the game. A stop in this situation would give Northwest’s explosive offense the ball in good field position with a chance to make it a one-score game and put even more pressure on Aquinas.
Then Randy Dreiling dialed this play up.
The 70-yard touchdown pass from Tate Raboin to Jack Gabel all but sealed the first football state championship in Aquinas history and helped win Dreiling his eighth state title after winning seven at Hutchinson.
“It was the perfect play call at the perfect moment,” Raboin said.
Here’s why it was so perfect:
1. The gravitational pull of Tank Young
On a field full of Division I prospects, it was Aquinas running back Tank Young who stood out the most.
The Saints relied on the 5-foot-7 sophomore to be their workhorse in their flexbone offense and Young delivered a sterling performance: 34 carries, 329 rushing yards, four touchdowns.
Dreiling knew Northwest’s defense would make Young its No. 1 priority to stop, even on 3rd-and-16. Dreiling baits Northwest into thinking the play was a designed toss to the left by sending Young in motion to the left before the snap and having the entire offensive line pull to the left.
“Any time you fake the ball to Tank, people are going to go,” Dreiling said.
Sure enough, watch the second level of Northwest’s defense and the gravitational pull Young has on them. All eyes are in the backfield watching Young.
The play call doesn’t work unless Young has established himself as a dangerous enough threat to use as a decoy. Young certainly qualified, as he finished his sophomore season with 2,075 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns.
“It was a relief (to be the decoy),” Young said. “I was already pretty tired.”
2. A pulling line and one key block
With Young established as the decoy, the jobs of linemen Joe Michalski, Jaeden Roberts, Tommy Tholen, Dionte Brown and Jack Johnson were to sell this play call as a toss to the left.
“We pull as hard as we can to the left,” Tholen said. “Our goal is to get deep to make it look like we’re doing the pitch.”
There is some risk because when Raboin fakes the pitch and rolls to his right, all of his best blockers are essentially out of the equation.
That leaves senior Joe O’Leary with perhaps the most important job to ensure this play works.
While Michalski, the Aquinas left tackle, pulls to the left, it leaves O’Leary (lined up at right slotback) on an island with the responsibility of blocking one of the top defensive ends in the country: Northwest’s Marcus Hicks, who is committed to play at Oklahoma.
The play design works in O’Leary’s favor. He might not be able to block Hicks one-on-one straight up, but here Hicks follows the pulling linemen to the left, which gives O’Leary good position to seal him once Hicks realizes that Raboin has faked the pitch and is rolling to the right.
O’Leary’s seal helped buy Raboin just enough time needed to find Gabel streaking wide open.
“We’ve used that play a couple of times this year and every time we’ve had success,” Dreiling said. “I knew if we protected (Raboin), it was going to be a big play.”
3. Clearing the right side of the field
There’s nothing very special about a tight end drag route across the field.
Gabel lined up on the left end of the Aquinas line and inconspicuously passes through Northwest’s second level of defense unmarked. He runs by two linebackers who could have chipped him, but they were so concerned about containing what they thought was a pitch left to Young that they let Gabel run right past them.
Aquinas stacked two receivers (Theo Grabill and Charlie Ketchum) to the right and had them clear out the right side of the field by taking their defenders with them on drag routes to the left side of the field.
The execution is perfect, as Grabill runs a 5-yard drag route and Ketchum runs a 10-yard drag route with Gabel splitting them running free to the right sideline. Raboin steps up and delivers a strike to Gabel .
The decoy (Young) worked so well that when Gabel makes the catch near the right sideline, the entire Northwest defense is caught inside the right hash. That allowed Gabel to make the catch at the first-down marker and sprint the rest of the 55 yards to the end zone.
“Everyone keyed in on Tank, so all I had to do was make the throw to my boy Jack and let him do the rest of the work,” Raboin said.
“We’ve been working on that play in practice for a couple of weeks,” Gabel said. “I knew I was wide open, but I figured there would be people around me when I caught it.”
“I knew he would be open,” Dreiling said. “I didn’t know he would beat everybody to the goal line, but he did.”
“It was an adrenaline rush I’ve never had before,” Gabel said. “It was probably the happiest moment of my life.”
While this play may get lost in the shuffle since Aquinas won 49-28 to cap off its 12-0 season, it was a critical response to halt Northwest’s momentum and all but seal the program’s first state title.
In the biggest moment, Dreiling showed why he is an eight-time state championship coach.
“Coach Dreiling is the best coach in the state of Kansas, probably in the whole country,” Raboin said. “I’m so grateful I was with him for four years and he really deserves this state championship.”