It's a play that will hold a special place in Omaha Gross football history.
Jacob Johnson's 74-yard kickoff return with nine seconds left gave Gross a 14-7 victory over Elkhorn in a Class B playoff semifinal Friday night at Bryan Stadium. The third-ranked Cougars (11-1) will face No. 5 Norris for the Class B state championship Nov. 20 at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium.
Elkhorn tied the game with 27 seconds left and overtime seemed a certainty until Johnson scooped up a squib kick at the 26.
He sprinted to the right and cut back across the field just beyond midfield. Then it was smooth sailing to end zone as he finished off one of the most unbelievable finishes Cougar coach Tim Johnk has ever been a part of.
“We've had right return in all season but we've never used it,” Johnk said. “We expected the squib and we thought this was the time to try it, at least to get in position for a couple of plays. Jake's a pretty fast kid and once I saw him cut back, I knew they weren't going to catch him.
“I've been doing this for 20 years and I'm not sure I've ever seen a bigger play than that.”
Johnson said once he reached midfield, he knew his next stop was the end zone.
“Once I got past the 50, I thought I had it,” Johnson said. “Coach talked about trying to make something happen and to never give up on any play.”
Elkhorn coach Mark Wortman said the reason for the squib kick was the respect for Cougar return man Nate Zimmerer.
“He's returned a few for touchdowns this year, including one against us (in an early-season meeting),” Wortman said. “We thought about kicking away, but we didn't want to take the chance of him getting the ball. We thought it was the safe play.”
After knocking on the door of the end zone much of the second half, Elkhorn finally got there with 27 seconds to play.
A 56-yard drive that began with 5:14 remaining ended when Tanner Bailey barged in from 4 yards out. After briefly contemplating going for a two-point conversion, Wortman settled for the extra point and the tie.
“Yeah, we thought about two, but the way things were going, we thought we'd be OK in overtime,” he said.
After a scoreless first half, Gross finally found its groove on offense on the opening drive of the second half. A 25-yard option keeper from quarterback Zach Johnk sparked the drive and the Cougars would convert a pair of fourth downs, one on a 12-yard strike from Johnk to Nate Crnkovich and another on an Elkhorn penalty.
I-back Anthony Vigneri ended the drive on a 3-yard run from a Wildcat formation with 6:43 left in the third.
Gross would not register another first down the rest of the night as its defense endured two Elkhorn drives that got inside the Cougar 25, but netted no points. The first ended on downs at the 20 while the second drive ended on downs at the 22.
Coach Johnk and the Cougars will be making their first appearance in a state title game since the Class A championship game in 1983.
“We emphasize all three phases of the game and this is why,” coach Johnk said. “This group is just so resilient. I felt like they were going to find a way to win.”
Elkhorn (8-4) .................... 0 0 0 7—7
Omaha Gross (11-1) ................. 0 0 7 7—14
OG: Anthony Vigneri 3 run (Max Connor kick)
E: Tanner Bailey 4 run (Stiles kick)
OG: Jacob Johnson 74 kickoff return (Connor kick)
Rushing: E, Bailey 24-86; Ben Hass 8-55; Jake Hasty 10-44. G, Vigneri 14-56; Zach Johnk 6-49; Tyler Koraleski 6-13.
Passing: E, Hass 2-11-1-20. G, Johnk 4-9-0-41.
Receiving: E, Chris Weber 1-9, Austin Alfrey 1-11. G, Nate Zimmerer 1-15; Nate Crnkovich 1-12; Vigneri 1-11; Derek Dostal 1-3.