MONTICELLO — A shutdown defense and strong running game were the strengths that led Monticello to an 8-1 regular season and a first-round playoff win.
On Saturday, St. Joseph-Ogden beat the Sages at their own game.
Orion Ciota rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns as the Spartans shut out Monticello 35-0 to advance to the third round of the Class 3A playoffs.
St. Joseph-Ogden will host top-seeded and undefeated Williamsville next weekend.
“Our kids just came to play. It’s a good sign for us,” SJ-O coach Dick Duval said. “We’re playing well at the right time of the year.”
Connor Janes scored on a 9-yard run late in the first quarter, and Ciota followed with a 5-yard burst for a 12-0 SJ-O lead.
But it was the Spartans’ defense that stole the show, forcing five Monticello turnovers and limiting the Sages to one first down and 59 yards of total offense (68 passing, minus-9 rushing) in the first half.
“That was the key to the game right there: shutting them down at the beginning of the game,” Ciota said. “I don’t care what was on the scoreboard; that’s a good team. It was a tough game, and it was well earned.”
It was 35-0 by halftime.
“We talk about that all the time. I don’t care what level of football you’re at whether it’s youth football, pro football, high school football, college football — whoever makes the most turnovers is going to have a hard time winning a ballgame,” Duval said. “We flow to the ball as much as we can, and I thought the first half was the best half we’ve played all year, offensively and defensively both.”
SJ-O senior Dalton Walsh threw touchdown passes to Hunter Hart and Chase Gadau.
“We knew we had to mix it up on offense,” Duval said. “We knew we had to mix in the run with the pass. I thought we kept them off-balanced enough that we made plays.”
The SJ-O play-calling became conservative in the second half, but the defense didn’t break against the Sages.
“In the second half we didn’t do as well, but we still picked it up,” Ciota said. “We kept going and going. Defense did what they had to do. Offensively, we couldn’t get it going, but the defense picked it up.”
The Spartans were successful against a Monticello defense that was stingy with points (8.3 per game) and rushing yards. SJ-O totaled 265 yards on the ground and put up the most points on the Sages’ defense all year.
“Honestly, we were a little iffy that we could do it, but we came in, did what we needed to do and the linemen blocked the way they needed to. I ran right behind them, and they’re the whole reason this happened,” Ciota said.
Dylan Knisley led Monticello (9-2) with 51 yards on 21 carries. Quarterback Sam Parrish threw for 92 yards on 7-of-25 passing, but three interceptions proved costly.
The Sages’ offense finished with 139 total yards after the sluggish first half.
“I didn’t like our body language before the game,” Monticello coach Cully Welter said. “I came in feeling like we were ready to move on to the quarterfinals. I really thought we were in a good position where we played well the last two weeks, had a good week of practice, and I just didn’t feel it before the game.
“I thought that’s kind of how we played. The turnovers hurt, but we didn’t play defense the way we played all year long.”
On the other side of the field, the Spartans didn’t play like they had all year long — they played better.
“We had never played like that before,” Ciota said. “We need to play like this next week and the week after and get better and better and hopefully make it to state.”