What looked like a possible blowout for Salina Central early in the second quarter turned into a dogfight in the second half.
The Mustangs turned to their defense to get the job done Friday night, holding off Goddard Eisenhower, 20-6, at Salina Stadium in the opening round of the Class 5A playoffs.
The Mustangs (7-2), in the midst of their best season in over a decade, will now travel to Wichita next Friday to face Bishop Carroll.
This one wasn't pretty by any means, but it was still a mark in the win column.
"It's huge," said senior Ben Driver, who caught a touchdown pass, grabbed two interceptions and latched on to a one-handed Sports Center-type catch in the first half to get his team out of bad field possession. "Two seasons - 0-18 - kind of sucked. We're 7-2 now and turned it around. That's big for us."
The Mustangs looked in total control for much of the first half. They scored a pair of touchdowns in less than two minutes early in the second half to grab a 20-0 lead, but could never deliver the knockout punch.
"Nothing came easy for us tonight, but you have to give credit to Goddard Eisenhower," said first-year head coach Mark Sandbo. "It seemed like they had us back up the entire second half."
Central took the opening kickoff and moved 59 yards in 16 plays before facing a 4th-and-goal at the Eisenhower 6. The Mustangs lined up for a 23-yard field goal, but holder Jackson Kavanagh took the snap, headed left and then flipped the ball to senior Riley Counts, who raced around right end for a 6-yard score with 5:23 left in the first quarter.
A short time later, an Eisenhower punt pinned the Mustangs back at their own 1-yard line, but on first down, Kavanagh lofted a deep ball over the middle that Driver caught one-handed for a 34-yard gain.
Driver's catch, which stirred up the Central fans, jump-started a 99-yard, 8-play drive that culminated with a 22-yard scoring pass over the middle from Kavanagh to Gavin Prester. Taylon Peters' PAT made it a 13-0 game at the 11:16 mark of the second quarter.
A 2-yard punt by the Tigers set up Central at the Eisenhower 26 just four plays later. It took the Mustangs only three plays to score, this time an 8-yard pass from Kavanagh to Driver with 9:30 still remaining before halftime.
Little did anyone know this would be the Mustangs' final points of the game. Peters did rush for 140 yards on 25 carries and Kavanagh threw for 155 yards and a pair of scores, but the Central offense was inconsistent the final 2 1/2 quarters.
The Central defense took it from there. Eisenhower (3-6) did score with 16 seconds left before halftime on a 2-yard run by Parker Wenzel to cap a 5-play, 60-yard drive, but that was all the Mustangs would allow.
"All season long we've kind of been known for our bend-but-not-break defense," senior linebacker Drew Burgoon said. "We have always found ways to get the stop when we need it. It shows our character and that we have a good defense out there."
Eisenhower drove into Central territory five times in the second half, but came up empty each time. The Tigers ended drives at the Central 7 (missed field goal), 25 (interception by Driver), 49 (punt), 6 (Driver interception) and 38 (on downs).
"We were backed up a lot, but we made some big stops," said Driver, who also had four catches for 102 yards on offense.
"They were terrific," Sandbo said of his defense. "That was mighty impressive. We were backed up the entire second half. We put them in some awful situations."
And now, it's on the Bishop Carroll.
"It'll be a tough game, but we have the potential to beat them," Burgoon said. "We'll be ready."
The Mustangs received a scare late in the game when Peters came off the field with a left leg injury. But Sandbo said the Mustang senior could have returned to the game if he was needed.