The Auburn High football team has had a giant chip on its collective shoulder since the beginning of the season.
The tradition-rich Trojans stumbled to a 4-6 record a year ago, missed the state playoffs and were then projected to finish third in a preseason poll of the South Puget Sound League, North Division coaches.
Few viewed them as a top-10 team or one that would make a splash in the postseason.
So much for projections.
Lifted by a suffocating defense and a punishing running attack, unranked Auburn steamrolled to a 21-7 Class 4A state quarterfinal victory over fifth-ranked Mead on Saturday at Troy Field.
The Trojans will meet Bellarmine Prep next weekend in the semifinals.
“A lot of people underestimated us after what happened last year,” said Auburn safety T.J. Muao, who helped anchor a defense that held Mead to 226 yards from scrimmage and forced three turnovers. “We’re not used to missing the playoffs. That’s not Auburn football. We’ve been motivated to get back since last season ended.”
The Trojans (10-2) dominated the opening two quarters. They went on a nine-play, 90-yard scoring drive the first time they had the ball, with Kieo Buchanan securing the touchdown with a 4-yard run. Senior quarterback Brier Atkinson completed his only pass of the game on the drive when he found tight end Kevin Shelton for a 33-yard gain.
Late in the first half, Darnell Hagans squirted loose for a 29-yard gain on a reverse. One play later, do-everything Harold Lee scampered 27 yards to score, capping an eight-play, 77-yard march that gave the Trojans a 14-0 lead at the break.
Hagans paced a balanced Auburn rushing attack with 81 yards on seven carries. Buchanan – who totaled 106 yards in the Trojans’ 20-6 win over Eastmont one week earlier – added 72 yards on nine carries. Atkinson chipped in 37 yards on 14 carries and Lee had 35 yards on four attempts.
“Those (running backs) sprint along the line of scrimmage in our fly offense on every snap and most of those kids play defense, so we like to share the load and keep them fresh,” Auburn coach Gordon Elliott said. “Plus, each of them brings a unique talent to the field and that makes it tough on the other team.”
Mead managed 111 yards of offense in the first half, but the Panthers squandered a point-blank scoring opportunity in the second quarter.
Trailing 7-0, the visitors from Spokane took possession at the Auburn 11 following a botched punt snap by the Trojans. But quarterback Gunnar Kayser fumbled two straight snaps. One play later, on fourth-and-three from the 5, Trojan linebacker Danny Velasco tackled Mead standout running back Davian Barlow a yard short of the first down and three yards shy of the goal line.
“There’s nothing really magical about what we’re doing on defense,” said Auburn defensive coordinator Kjel Kiilsgaard, in his 27th season with the Trojans. “We’re stressing alignment and assignment, and the kids are doing a great job of staying with those principles. No one’s trying to be the hero. They’re all just doing their jobs, and what happens is, we’re always able to get an unblocked player to the point of attack.”
Along with Muao and Velasco, Shelton had a big game with two tackles for losses and one sack. Defensive backs Jaykob Sloan and Josh Tate each recorded an interception.
Mead finally got untracked when Barlow scored from 6 yards out, culminating a 15-play, 80-yard drive that trimmed Auburn’s lead to 14-7 with 10:20 to play, but the Trojans responded with a 12-play, 75-yard advancement, finalized by Demontra McNealy’s 12-yard touchdown burst.