FORRESTON — In a 20-8 win over Dakota in the 1A playoff quarterfinals on Nov. 12, Johnny Kobler made his presence felt with 113 yards and two touchdowns.
But there was also another Johnny that made the biggest play of the game to completely flip the game around in Forreston’s favor. That would be “Johnny-on-the-Spot”, a.k.a. Kaleb Sanders.
Early in the second half with Dakota ahead 8-6 and in the possession of the ball at midfield, it was Sanders to the rescue with a 40-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. With Colin Kuhn pressuring Indian quarterback Kaidyn Niedermeier, the ball came loose and bounced right into the hands of Sanders.
“It was one of the luckiest plays I’ve ever seen in football,” Forreston coach Keynon Janicke said.
Once Sanders became the fortuitous recipient of such a valued possession, there was nothing but open field ahead for the defensive back.
“I knew if I scored, it could change the game,” Sanders said. “I was so excited and saw Payton Encheff and Q Frederick coming up behind and jumping on me.”
The game was far from over, though.
Behind Niedermeier, who threw a last-minute touchdown pass to defeat Forreston in the regular season, the Indians marched to the 9-yard line late in the third quarter and had a chance to take the lead back. In the most important defensive stand of the game, the Cardinals held strong and denied Dakota the end zone.
“Our backs were up against the wall the entire game,” Janicke said. “But, this is a group of fighters.”
Dakota was too. They forced a 3-and-out and got the ball back at Forreston’s 40-yard line following a punt. However, the Indians were severely hampered by a 10-yard penalty and could not convert a first down.
Taking over at its own 39-yard line, it was a heavy dose of Kolber in a game-clinching drive for the Cardinals. Gaining 46 of the final 61 yards, the 240-pound fullback punched it over from a yard out with 3:44 left for a 20-8 lead.
“Johnny’s one of those kids that has a special passion. I’ve never seen anyone else in sports like him,” Forreston QB Brock Smith said.
On the ensuing possession, Forreston appeared to have the game locked up, as Dakota faced a 4th-and-28 situation after a holding penalty. But, Niedermeier found Adrian Arellano on a wheel route screen and it went for 40 yards.
The Indians got into the red zone, but consecutive pass break ups by Jace Engbert and Endeff forced a 4-and-out.
With time running out, the Dakota defense was stacked to stop Kobler on third down, but Smith faked everyone out on the keeper for a first down to seal the victory.
“It’s just a mentality with us,” said Smith explaining his team’s never-say-die attitude.
It didn’t look that way in the first half, though.
“Dakota punched us in the mouth,” Janicke said. “Nothing was going our way. It really helped scoring just before half.”
It was Kobler with a 4 yard run to close the gap to 8-6 with 1:10 left in the second quarter. Arellano had earlier scored on a 13-yard touchdown for Dakota following a turnover.
“Our defense played lights out,” Dakota coach Dan Sheets said.
The Cardinals were “held” to 182 yards rushing, 200 less than they had in the earlier contest with the Indians.
Other than the 40-yard reception to Arellano, Niedermeier completed only three other passes in 13 attempts in the cold, blustery conditions for another 21 yards. Dakota (7-5) did have 221 yards of total offense, 50 more than Forreston.
“It was unfortunate that they capitalized on (fumble),” Sheets said.
Forreston (8-4) advances to the semifinals for the sixth time, where they are 3-2. The last two semifinal contests were splits with Lena-Winslow (12-0), the opponent this Saturday at Lena. Game time is 2 p.m.
“I’m glad it’s at Le-Win. We seem to play better there,” Janicke said.
The Cardinals, who have 4,200 yards rushing for the year, have given No. 1-ranked Le-Win their closest game, losing only 28-14 in the regular-season finale.
The winner will play for the state championship in Champaign on Friday, Nov. 25 at Memorial Stadium against either Camp Point Central or Colfax-Ridgeview.