BY T.J. COTTERILL
PUYALLUP – Danny Uluilakepa and Grady Robison each had their helmets to their sides, talking to each other in their stained football jerseys about how fun it’s going to be next year when they're both wearing Montana State University jerseys instead of opposing Puyallup and Eastlake high school ones, respectively.
This is for certain: The Bobcats are getting two of the most electric players in Washington state next year.
Robison dazzled for Eastlake’s offense with 431 total yards and three total touchdowns, doing his best Lamar Jackson impersonations with every snap.
But it was Uluilakepa and Puyallup’s defense state stepped up most in the second half. The Vikings scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:19 remaining and held off Robison from there to cap a thrilling 40-34 victory in the first round of the 4A state playoffs on Friday at Sparks Stadium.
That’s the kind of win that prepares teams for state championship runs, Puyallup coach Gary Jeffers said.
And it’s the kind of game that can prepare the Vikings for a daunting road ahead – with No. 2 Camas, No. 3 Lake Stevens likely standing in their way of a trip to the 4A state championship.
“I can’t say enough about our kids battling,” Jeffers said. “We talked about iron sharpening iron and I feel like we got that today. It was ironman football going on out there and I feel like we got better today because we played them.”
PUYALLUP’S CLUTCH DRIVE
Puyallup’s junior quarterback Luke Holcomb completed 16 of 24 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, both to Isaac Clark, who had 112 receiving yards on four catches. And it was his collected poise that helped the Vikings seal the game on their final drive.
He dunked passes to brothers Joseph and Jordan Dwyer, marching from their 40 to Eastlake’s 6 before Ford punched his way into the end zone on second-and-goal with just over a minute remaining to give Puyallup a 39-34 lead.
But Puyallup inexplicably didn’t go for two, instead taking the extra point and leaving the door open for Robison and Eastlake’s electric offense.
The Wolves charged to Puyallup’s 35 with seven seconds remaining, but Robison’s pass into the end zone was batted down as Puyallup celebrated.
“We had 80 yards to go but we didn’t have any doubt we were going to make it happen,” Robison said. “We had that mindset the entire game and we know we can make explosive plays happen. We just fell short.”
Said Eastlake coach Don Bartel: “We had a shot at the end with the ball in our hands and that’s all you can really ask for. We’ll take it. Obviously you want a different outcome, but that’s a good football team.
“I was just confused why they didn’t go for two at the end. After that it was like, ‘We’re just one missed tackle from taking this game and winning it. Our guys battled.”
MONTANA STATE MONSTERS
Puyallup pulled this off despite Robison completing 23 of 40 passes for 279 yards and running 20 times for 152 yards and two touchdowns.
His first score came on a 55-yard bust through the middle of Puyallup’s defense in the first quarter to give Eastlake a 10-7 lead. He put the Wolves ahead, again, on his three-yard score with 5:29 to play that capped a 92-yard drive and put Eastlake up 34-33.
“He’s fast,” Puyallup quarterback Luke Holcomb said of Robison, who is also a state-champion sprinter in track and field. “Like a white Lamar Jackson, geez.
“We knew it was going to be tough to contain him, but we had to flush it and move to the next play. And that’s what we did.”
But how about Uluilakepa on the other side?
Maybe the most scintillating play of the night came when Eastlake started its third-quarter drive at its 17, after Marquel Thomas’ interception led to a Puyallup field goal for a 31-27 lead.
Uluilakepa, the reigning 4A SPSL defensive player of the year, exploded on a blitz, knocked Eastlake running back Garrett Carney back into Robison, who tried to scramble out and throw it away before Uluilakepa poked the ball loose and forced a safety with Carney jumping on the ball in the end zone.
That gave Puyallup a 33-27 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“Danny is incredible – he’s the best football player I’ve ever coached,” Jeffers said.
And that’s saying a lot, especially since Puyallup had the Gatorade state player of the year last year in quarterback Jacob Holcomb, Luke’s older brother, on its way to the state semifinals.
“I mean, he’s a coach on the field, and he’s a phenomenal athlete and he’s a guy who wants to run through you every time.”
Puyallup now awaits the winner of Saturday’s Camas-Eastmont game for next week’s state quarterfinals.