ST. GEORGE — Crimson Cliffs is headed to the 4A state football semifinals.

The Mustangs, by way of a quarterfinal victory over defending champion Desert Hills, will next face Ridgeline, which handled Payson 45-6 Friday night.

The other semifinal will pit Park City against Green Canyon. Click here for the updated 4A playoff bracket.

It didn’t take long for Crimson Cliffs to establish itself against the Thunder as the Mustangs galloped to a 20-0 lead and never looked back. Crimson Cliffs improved to 11-1 for the season, its only blemish a 26-23 loss Aug. 18 against 6A Bingham.

Desert Hills, meanwhile, finished 7-5 in its first season under coach Solomona Tapasa.

Crimson Cliffs 41, Desert Hills 16

An old adage during playoff football says that if you play good defense and win the turnover battle, you’re going to win a lot more games than you lose. 

Crimson Cliffs senior Ty West catches a touchdown pass against Desert Hills in a 4A state quarterfinal football game, Washington, Utah, Nov. 3, 2023 | Photo by Aaron Crane, St. George News

Crimson Cliffs stuck to the script Friday night, forcing three Desert Hills turnovers and riding its defensive dominance to a 41-16 win, sending the Mustangs to the 4A state semifinals next week.

The No. 2 seed Mustangs (11-1) put the game out of reach on the first play of the second half when McCord Christiansen raced 85 yards for a touchdown and an insurmountable 27-6 advantage.

The No. 10 seed Thunder (7-5) tried to establish its vaunted running game but Crimson Cliffs’ 3-4 defense never allowed Desert Hills’ offense to build any momentum.

The home team set the tone in the first quarter, forcing punts on Desert Hills’ first two possessions while scoring touchdowns on its first two drives.

Malakai Alofipo collected a 67-yard touchdown strike from Steele Barben for Crimson’s first score, then Barben sidearmed a laser beam to Ty West for a 55-yard score and the Mustangs jumped out to a 14-0 early lead.

Then with Desert Hills moving the ball and threatening to get into the game, Crimson Cliffs senior Jace Sweeten intercepted Thunder quarterback Gerrit Grondel to end the drive.

“That play is designed to bait that throw in,” Sweeten told St. George News. “We just called it at the right time. They threw it, I caught it and ran it.”

Christiansen capped the ensuing Crimson drive with his 15-yard run to the house, barreling through multiple Thunder defenders and putting the Mustangs up 20-0.

Desert Hills quarterback Gerrit Grondel hands off to Tytan Mason against Crimson Cliffs in a 4A state quarterfinal football game, Washington, Utah, Nov. 3, 2023 | Photo by Aaron Crane, St. George News

Grondel and the Thunder answered with a long scoring drive, featuring runs by Tytan Mason and short passes to the sidelines. 

Javiyen Cummings caught Grondel’s 3-yard TD toss to get the Thunder on the board. After a blocked extra point Crimson led 20-6.

Then Desert Hills got the ball back and tried to score right before halftime. Grondel’s pass in the red zone was intercepted by Crimson junior Brayden Smith, maintaining the Mustangs’ two-touchdown lead at the break.

“We had linebackers covering down low, so I just stayed deep,” Smith said. “Parker (Andrus) rushed the quarterback and so he had to get it out quick. And I was just on my guy, jumped the route and got it.”

The Thunder kicked off to open the second half and the Mustangs needed one play for Christiansen to rip off the 85-yard scoring run that turned the game into a blowout. 

Desert Hills put Tristan John’s 15-yard field goal on the board next, making the tally 27-9.

But Crimson Cliffs kept the pedal down with Barben’s 3-yard TD pass to West, putting the Mustangs up 34-9 with 4:14 remaining in the third quarter.

Crimson Cliffs quarterback Darius Strickland dives for the end zone as the Mustangs defeated Desert Hills in the 4A state football playoffs, Washington, Utah, Nov. 3, 2023 | Photo by Aaron Crane, St. George News

The Thunder got the ball back and had a promising drive going until Mustangs junior linebacker McKay Wright forced a fumble and recovered it, again stopping Desert Hills.

“I just blitzed and ended up running into that dude and he dropped the ball,” Wright said. “I tried to pick it up and go for six, but I got caught trying to pick up the ball.” 

Christiansen later scored his third touchdown of the game, a 3-yard barrel into the house, to provide Crimson’s last score with 8:37 left in the contest.

Grondel found Marcus Anderson for a 10-yard Desert Hills touchdown that provided the final margin.

Barben and company form an explosive offense for the Mustangs but it might be Crimson’s 3-4 pressure defense that makes them so tough to beat.

“I think that’s just coach Wayne (Alofipo) putting us in the right spots,” Wright said. “He knows what he’s doing and it’s just other guys making plays. That’s all it is, us just working and coach Wayne’s scheme.” 

A playoff season of rematches continues now for Crimson Cliffs, which plays No. 6 seed Ridgeline (10-2) in a 4A semifinal contest Friday, Nov. 10, at 6 p.m. at Rice Eccles Stadium on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The game marks the third year in a row that Crimson plays Ridgeline in the 4A semifinals.

Last year, Crimson won 27-13. The year before that, Crimson lost to the Riverhawks 49-34.

“Start getting ready. Part 3,” Sweeten said.

1A state playoff results

Beaver 20, Kanab 13

Enterprise 18, Duchesne 12 (OT)

The 1A championship game is set, and two Southern Utah teams will face off on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 1 p.m. at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.

The top-rated Beavers (11-1) withstood a challenge from the No. 4 Cowboys (7-5) to advance to the 1A state title game against No. 3 Enterprise (11-1), which needed overtime to knock off No. 2 Duchesne (10-2)

In Beaver’s semifinal win, the difference was a Deegan Blackner-to-Baylor Blackburn 50-yard halfback pass. The upset-minded Cowboys were paced by Griffen Bone, who scored both of Kanab’s touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Enterprise’s Brayden Gardner scored the winning touchdown in overtime, propelling the Wolves to an 18-12 OT victory over Duchesne.

No. 1 Rich 50, No. 4 Water Canyon 14 (1A, 8-man)

Water Canyon’s season came to an end against top-seeded Rich (7-4). The Wildcats (5-5) got two touchdowns from Aaron Barlow on passes of 23 and 30 yards from quarterback Johnnie Johnson.

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