Another strong dose of “Islander defense” proved to be an encouraging sign for Grand Island Senior High after Friday’s regular-season finale.
The Islanders returned two interceptions for touchdowns, giving the defense one more TD than it allowed in a 34-13 victory over Norfolk at Memorial Stadium.
Those pick sixes by linebackers Augustin Atikpohou and Ben Francl came in the third quarter to help Grand Island (3-4) extend a 14-7 halftime advantage to 34-7.
“Our defense really held up,” Francl said. “It was a good night. Islander defense is tough, physical defense. The first few games it wasn’t there. These last few games, it clicked and we’re playing Islander defense now. It’s tough, physical football.”
Norfolk (1-7) only managed six first downs in the game but still found a way to hang close through the first half.
Things started to change on the opening possession after halftime when Atikpohou snagged a Jace Mohr pass and returned it 35 yards.
“I just did my job, really,” said Atikpohou, who also led the Islanders with four receptions for 64 yards. “Our defense did great and is doing its job.”
Then a pair of different outcomes on fourth-and-short plays really helped to turn the tide.
The Panthers couldn’t convert on a fourth-and-1 from their own 39. A 20-yard pass from Kytan Fyfe to Dylan Keolavone moved the ball to the 7, and on fourth-and-goal from the 3 Fyfe kept it himself and scored to give the Islanders a 28-7 lead.
On the second play of Norfolk’s next possession, it was Francl’s turn for a pick six from 23 yards out.
“We did a zone read, and I just dropped back into my zone,” Francl said. “He threw it right to me. I was surprised. I picked it off and stumbled over my teammate. I saw one of them coming after me so I pushed my teammate and headed into the end zone.”
Grand Island chose to have the strong wind to its back in the third quarter and made that decision pay off.
“When we came out in the third quarter and chose to bury it deep, we knew we’d have to score in that third quarter because the wind was going to come up even a little stronger,” Islander coach Jeff Tomlin said. “We were able to get those two defensive touchdowns, which were big. Then Kytan’s touchdown on fourth down was big as well.”
Grand Island outgained the Panthers 345 yards to 126.
Atikpohou said the team wants to live up to the standards of “Islander defense.”
“It’s a tradition of teams for years before us, and we want to keep working harder,” he said. “We’re trying to play better defense.”
It was another tough outing for Norfolk and head coach Tom Olson.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I thought the two pick sixes were big. But I thought the kids came in with a pretty good attitude. Like I told them (in the postgame huddle), I’ve never been 1-7 before. Yet I’ve had some 3-6 and some 4-5 teams that gave up a lot earlier than this team has. They just keep coming back and giving us a good effort.
“I guess the frustration is just that I felt we had some opportunities to do things. We had some mistakes at really critical times. I’m not just talking about pick sixes. I’m talking about missed blocks, missed assignments, missed tackles.”
Tomlin, on the other hand, got just the kind of performance he wanted from the Islanders heading into next week’s Class A playoffs opening round.
“We continued to get momentum,” he said. “I think we have pretty good momentum going into next week. We got out of it without any major injuries.
“(Lineman) Luke Norvell did an excellent job. He was really, really sick for most of the week and still came in and battled for us. Without (running back) Ayden McDermott being available, I thought Beau (Walker) stepped up and did an excellent job.”
Offensively, Grand Island had a balanced night with 190 yards passing and 155 rushing. Fyfe went 16-for-26 for 184 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Keolavone led the rushing attack with 64 yards on nine carries.
“Our kids played really hard, and I was proud of them,” Tomlin said. “We did some things on all three phases. Special teams at times looked really good. Offensively, I thought we ran the ball pretty effectively. There were times when we needed to run the ball that we didn’t run as well, but I thought our running backs ran hard.
“Beau Walker did a great job, Daylon did a great job and so did Jace Chrisman, which means our O-line played pretty hard. Kytan continues to play better and better and get a better grasp of the offense and managed the team and managed the tempo really well.”
The Islanders will find out who and where they play next when the Class A pairings are announced Saturday morning.
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