Elkhorn South rallied in the second half to hand Gretna its first loss of the season on Thursday night in one of the best Class A games of the season thus far.
Here are five thoughts on the game.
Tale of Two Halves
Gretna looked to be firmly in control throughout the first half. The Dragons led 14-0 at the break and the Storm had barely cracked 100 yards of offense at that point. Gretna had a good game plan and executed it pretty well.
Whatever Coach Guy Rosenberg said in the locker room seemed to have worked, however, as things completely flipped in the second half. Elkhorn South continued to pound away at the Dragon defense and eventually wore it down.
Elkhorn South had an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the second half and then a 17-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that chewed up nearly eight minutes of game clock to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. In between, quarterback Will Skradis ripped off a 56-yard touchdown run on third-and-5.
Elkhorn South racked up 261 yards on the ground in the second half, which simultaneously put points on the board and kept the ball away from the high-powered Gretna offense. Then, when Elkhorn South needed stops late, the defense stepped up — twice. More on that soon.
Cole Ballard is a Beast
Elkhorn South’s junior back didn’t have much room to run in the first half. Ballard managed to gain just 36 yards on 13 carries in the first 24 minutes. But Elkhorn South’s commitment to the run paid off in the second half.
Ballard picked up 47 yards on seven carries on the Storm’s first drive of the second half, capping it with a touchdown. He was just getting started, though. Ballard carried the ball 22 times for 145 yards and three touchdowns in the second half, finishing with 181 yards on 35 totes (5.2 yards per carry).
Ballard put the exclamation point on the win with his final touchdown, a 37-yard run that put the Storm ahead by eight with 69 seconds to go. Ballard broke at least three tackles on his way to the end zone. At 6-foot and 185 pounds, Ballard has tremendous feet and good balance, and he runs hard. He also plays safety for the Storm and made a few really nice defensive plays on Thursday as well.
Ballard was among the unofficial visitors at Memorial Stadium to watch Nebraska blow out Northwestern last week.
Zane Flores Can Spin It
Gretna junior Zane Flores is one of the best quarterbacks in the state, and he showed off his considerable talent once again on Thursday.
Flores controlled the action throughout the first half, completing 12 of his 16 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown, and he had a 1-yard rushing touchdown as well. Flores accounted for all but 5 of Gretna’s yards in the first half. He hit receivers at short, intermediate and deep levels, and three of his four incompletions were throwaways.
Elkhorn South played keep away from Flores in the second half to a certain degree and he finished 18-of-27 for 239 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t able to light up the Storm defense to the same degree, but he still made a couple of elite throws.
On the final play of the third quarter, Gretna faced a third-and-8. Flores dropped back to pass but Elkhorn South star pass rusher Maverick Noonan was in his lap almost immediately. Flores managed to slip out of Noonan’s grasp, however, and escaped to his right, throwing s another Storm defensive lineman hit him. He put the ball right on the money to tight end Caleb Schnell, who picked up 19 yards.
Two plays later, Gretna faced a third-and-8, and this time Flores dropped the ball in a bucket from 26 yards out to wideout Joe Roll on a corner route.
I was also impressed with Flores’ ability to avoid the rush and keep plays alive. He’s not a typical dual-threat quarterback who can rack up yardage with his legs, but he’s not a statue in the pocket either. He did a great job extending plays throughout the night, and made some good decisions to throw the ball away rather that trying to force something that wasn’t there. His only interception, which came right at the end and sealed the victory, came on a ball that bounced off his intended receiver’s hands.
Maverick Noonan is a Game-Changer
Fans at Thursday’s game didn’t hear junior defensive end Maverick Noonan’s name too many times. The 2023 Nebraska target had a couple of tackles and a couple of pressures though the first three quarters, but he never got home on Flores for a sack.
However, he stepped up late when the Storm needed him most. Elkhorn South’s go-ahead touchdown came with 2:53 remaining in the game — plenty of time for Flores to lead the Dragons down the field.
A defensive holding call moved Gretna near midfield, and a first-down run set up second-and-7 at the 47. On the next play, the Storm flushed Flores out of the pocket and he had open turf in front of him to gain a Chunk of yardage, but Noonan tracked him down and dropped him at the line of scrimmage.
Then, on third down, Noonan bull-rushed right through the right tackle and separated from him to sack Flores for the fist time all night. As Noonan hit him, the ball popped out as well and Elkhorn South recovered it at the 40-yard line, setting up Ballard’s final touchdown.
Even though Noonan’s first and only sack didn’t come until the final two minutes, his mere presence had a big impact on Gretna’s game plan. The Dragons dialed up a lot of quick game and screen passes to get the ball out of Flores’ hands before Noonan could reach him. The screen game was particularly effective early on, but the Storm defenders adjusted to shut it down in the second half and Gretna wasn’t able to generate much downfield to counter.
Stretch Run Upcoming
Both teams are 6-1 following Thursday’s battle, and their closing schedules are pretty similar. Both teams will face a tough Lincoln Southeast team that appears to have righted the ship a bit after back-to-back blowout losses to Omaha Creighton Prep and Lincoln East.
Elkhorn South will travel to Kearney next week before wrapping up the season at Southeast. The Dragons will look to get back on track against the Knights next week before closing out the regular season against a scrappy Papillion-La Vista team that has some talent but has faced a difficult schedule and dealt with injuries all year.
Right now, Elkhorn South is looking like it will be the No 4 seed in the Class A playoffs while Gretna is right behind as the No.5 seed.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.