At the time, it looked like the play that would help St. Thomas Aquinas put the game away early.
Kivon Bennett’s strip of Bingham (Utah) quarterback Matt Degn and Tyler Dunning’s ensuing 96-yard fumble return touchdown derailed the Miners’ only real scoring opportunity in the first half and kept Aquinas on a march to score the game’s first 30 points.
Little did anyone know how crucial a role the play would represent later as St. Thomas held off a fourth-quarter comeback by Bingham for a 33-25 win in the Geico State Champions Bowl Series at the Ford Center at The Star.
Bennett was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after recording three tackles for loss, causing two fumbles, including the one that ended in Dunning’s long touchdown run, and nabbing Degn twice in the Bingham backfield for sacks.
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“I saw it was a sweep, and my lineman, the guard, he went away from me, so I’m chasing the play down from behind,” Bennett, a Tennessee verbal commit, said. “Then [Degn] went to cut back, so I just reached my hand in and just ripped it and got the ball out.”
But the drama of the play wasn’t over with Dunning’s return.
Dunning, a Mississippi State commit, gathered control at the Aquinas 4-yard line and got had blockers in front and a head start on the Bingham pursuit. He began to slow down on the return around the Bingham 15-yard line, and 10 yards later, Bingham defensive back Brayden Cosper was on his back and punched the ball out.
Dunning hopped back on the ball about 9 1/2 yards deep in the end zone, barely avoiding the touchback had the ball continued out the back of the end zone.
“I didn’t think anyone was behind me because my teammate was talking to me as we were running,” Dunning said. “I’m thinking, ‘We’re clear,’ so I slow down and the next thing, I feel someone punch the ball out. I had to get it.”
Aquinas coach Roger Harriott had a slightly different take.
“I think [Dunning] needs a little more conditioning,” Harriott joked. “Maybe a few more wind sprints.”
St. Thomas took a 23-0 lead into halftime before Bingham pulled out all the stops in the second half to make it interesting. A 30-yard pass from backup quarterback Ryan Wood, who was lined up as a receiver on the play, to a streaking Cosper, who had five catches for 135 yards and a touchdown on offense, set up Bingham’s first score. Degn scored on a 4-yard keeper with 11:52 to play that made the score 30-6.
After Aquinas quarterback Jake Allen threw his second interception of the game on the next drive, Bingham used a 47-yard halfback pass to inch within 30-12 with 8:16 to play.
Aquinas kicker Salani Marco’s fourth field goal of the game made it 33-12 with 3:02 left, but Bingham wasn’t done yet. Running back Amoni Kaili, who threw the halfback pass seven minutes earlier, dove in on a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 33-18.
After recovering the ensuing onside kick, Degn found Cosper with a step on his defender down the sideline for a 44-yard touchdown pass that got Bingham within 33-25 with 35 seconds left to play.
Two kneel-downs form Allen, who went 18 of 28 for 216 yards and a 44-yard first-quarter touchdown to Mike Hartley, to go along with the two picks, got the Raiders out of Texas with their 13th win of the season, one Harriott said was meant to be a message on a national stage.
“But not your typical message you send to your opposition,” Harriott said. “It was more a message in this season of giving to our family members. We wanted to do that by making a national statement and by giving them the best gift that you can give your parents and colleagues and family members by just giving your best effort.”