OMAHA — Elkhorn and Aurora were locked in a tightly contested Class B state championship game Friday, but a string of game-changing plays vaulted the No. 4 Antlers to a 42-19 victory and their first state title since 2011.
Aurora had the ball in the red zone and looked poised to break a 13-13 tie right before halftime but fumbled, and Elkhorn's DJ Robinson-Long recovered it to shift the momentum to the Antlers' sideline.
Elkhorn then marched down the field in five plays to open the second half, and quarterback Grant Gutschow scored one of his three rushing touchdowns to give his team the lead.
Gannon Gragert picked off Aurora quarterback Ethan Shaw on the ensuing drive, then caught a 22-yard fade route on fourth down for a score. The defense forced a three-and-out, and Nebraska walk-on recruit Aiden Young ran untouched for a 46-yard touchdown to break the game open at 35-13.
Elkhorn coach Mark Wortman said it was the fumble recovery at the end of the half that was key to sparking the run.
“That was one of the biggest plays of the game,” he said. “If they go up by seven at half, we’re struggling. That was huge. We kept saying, 'Stick with it, things happen, there are things like fumbles and interceptions,' so it was perseverance on our part.”
No. 8 Aurora (9-4) had the momentum early. They used up most of the first quarter with a 17-play game-opening drive, capped by a 16-yard scoring run by Shaw on fourth down. The teams traded scores before Young returned a kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 13.
That set the stage for the momentum shift.
“They’re a really good football team, and you can’t have self-inflicted wounds like turning the ball over on their side of the field and win games like this,” Aurora coach Kyle Peterson said.
The Huskies moved the ball well for much of the night, led by 109 rushing yards from Mack Owens and 240 total yards from Shaw. But three turnovers helped tip the balance in favor of Elkhorn (11-2).
The Antlers accomplished the rare feat of winning a state championship on their home field — none of the state title games this season were played at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We’d all love to be in Memorial Stadium,” Young said. “That’s what we worked hard for. But there’s no better feeling than winning a state championship on your home field. Elkhorn knows about that, and this is where we belong.”
The senior finished with 14 carries for 104 yards to go along with his kick return for a score. Gutschow completed 5 of 9 passes for 191 yards, including the crucial score to Gragert in the third quarter. Gutschow also rushed for 44 yards.
The state championship was the sixth of Wortman’s 41-year head-coaching career. He said this one is satisfying, especially since it came on the team’s home field.
“This is as good as any of them,” he said. “They’re all special.”
Peterson said he was proud of his team, and he made sure to tell them just that after the game.
“The message is be incredibly proud of the journey that you guys went on,” he said. “It hurts right now, and if it didn’t hurt, it wasn’t worth it.”
ELKHORN 42, AURORA 19
A--Shaw 16 run (kick failed)
E--Gutschow 8 run (kick failed)
A--Owens 3 run (Peters kick)
E--Young 75 kickoff return (Houck kick)
E--Gutschow 9 run (Young run)
E--Gragert 22 pass from Gutschow (Houck kick)
E--Young 46 run (Houck kick)
E--Gutschow 2 run (Houck kick)
A--Shaw 1 run (pass failed)
RUSHING--A, Owens 20-109, Shaw 17-80, Danielson 1-4, Settles 1-15; E, Young 14-104, Gutschow 5-44, Stec 3-10, Johnson 2-6, Jordan 1-1.
PASSING--A, Shaw 16-22-1 160; Settles 0-1-1, 0; E, Gutschow 5-9-0 191.
RECEIVING--A, Elge 4-35, Settles 2-55, Bell 2-16, Oswald 1-6, HErzberg 1-5; E, Christo 3-65, Gragert 3-91.