The trenches are where football games are won.
Seldom does a team come out victorious without superior line play. While linemen are unheralded, they pave the way for the skill position players to put up video game-like numbers and receive most of the glory.
But for the Fallon football team, especially those skill players, Saturday’s appearance in the Division I-A state title game would not be possible if not for the offensive and defensive lines.
The boys in the trenches, though, must conquer Faith Lutheran to capture a championship when the teams meet at 4:05 p.m. at Damonte Ranch High School in Reno.
“We knew at the beginning of the year we had the skill to get here,” junior lineman Justin Hatfield said.
The offense has been a juggernaut all season and paving the way for a unit averaging 49.4 points per game is a tough, smart and talented line. Right tackle Kenny Keyes, right guard Cody Stadtman, center Braxton Hunter, left guard Brennan Lewis and left tackle Justin Hatfield.
“Last year we lost some big players last year,” Keys said. “I feel like we have a really strong line this year. I feel like we can handle anything anyone throws at us.”
Lewis was the only returning starter from last year’s unit, while Hunter, a sophomore, has transitioned smoothly to a difficult position. Keyes, meanwhile, moved from guard to right tackle this season.
Hatfield, a stalwart on the defensive line too, took Keys’ spot at left tackle, while Stadtman has been steady at right guard.
Perhaps the most difficult transition was for Hunter, whose snaps must be on target running the Pistol offense.
“I’m grateful I can coach the line,” offensive coordinator Lalo Otuafi said. “I have a sophomore center … when we started this the one thing we want to make sure of was our snaps. Our guys are grinding it out. It’s a war in the trenches. I think they’ve done a great job.”
The defensive line, meanwhile, anchors a stout unit that is giving up 14.8 points per game.
Hatfield not only is one of the leading tacklers (70) but also leads the team with nine sacks. Ricky Rogers (43 tackles) and Bradlee Stands (four sacks) plug up the middle, while Keys, freshman T.J. Mauga (seven tackles) and sophomore Talen Cordes (two tackles) hold the weakside.
Hatfield, though, has been opposing quarterbacks nightmare the past two seasons. He’s totaled 18 sacks, tallied 113 tackles and been a catalyst to one of the stoutest units in the state.
As for his tricks of the trade, well, it is simple.
“Don’t ever do anything twice,” Hatfield said. “Most tackles expect the same thing. It’s all in the hands.”
It has been Mauga and Cordes’ play in the postseason, however, that has given the veterans confidence after Hunter Holcomb suffered a season-ending concussion in the regular season finale against Lowry.
The weakside, though, was an area of focus for Fernley and Moapa Valley during Fallon’s playoff run. The Vaqueros, Fallon’s first-round opponent, had success early in the game running to the weakside.
The Pirates, meanwhile, lined up Mat McDermand, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound Division I recruit, as the weakside tackle. Moapa Valley made a point to run in that direction, but Mauga, Cordes, Keyes and the linebackers gave little room.
“Honestly, we were a little worried,” Hatfield said. “Kenny hadn’t gotten much playing time and Hunter was playing really well. I was a little skeptical (about Mauga and Cordes) … but they really stepped up and showed what they can do.”
The success of the defensive front, Hatfield said, starts in the weight room and in practice. High intensity workouts and a calming influence have allowed the line to blow open holes and battle veteran teams such as Moapa Valley.
“They don’t let anything get to them,” Hatfield said of the line.