Football: Grandview vs. Valor Christian matchup comes early in 5A state playoffs

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The ability of senior running back Hayden Blubaugh, Class 5A’s leading rusher, and the Grandview offense at extending drives and dictating pace will be big as the sixth-seeded Wolves (10-1) looks to knock off No. 3 Valor Christian (8-3) in a 5A state football quarterfinal playoff contest at 7 p.m. Nov. 18, 2016, at Valor Christian High School. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

The way this season’s condensed Class 5A state playoffs were set up, either Grandview or Valor Christian won’t be in the final four.

Take a second to let that set in.

The reduction in the playoff field from 32 to 16 teams this season has created some abnormally early power matchups and the one between the sixth-seeded Wolves (10-1) and No. 3 and defending state champion Eagles (8-3) definitely stands out.

The former Centennial League rivals meet at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 when Grandview pays a visit to Valor Christian for a spot in the semifinals. The two powerhouses have met five times since the Eagles moved up to the 5A classfication in 2010 and they hold a 3-2 edge over coach John Schultz’s Wolves.

“Everyone was upset a bit with part of the RPI and how it set the playoffs, but I think this is the best playoff eight I’ve seen since I’ve been in Colorado as far as matchups,” Schultz said. “All four matchups are awesome. It’s real football now.”

That would be hard to argue, as the other three quarterfinals feature heavyweight bouts between fifth-seeded and undefeated Eaglecrest and No. 4 Regis Jesuit, No. 1 Pomona and No. 9 Columbine and No. 7 Cherry Creek and No. 2 Mullen.

A Grandview-Valor Christian matchup has its own unique elements, however.

The Wolves is part of the special fraternity of Colorado programs that have managed to beat Valor Christian even once in seven seasons, joining Pomona, Cherry Creek and Mullen (who not coincidentally are all still alive in the postseason) and might have the recipe to do it again.

Grandview — which beat the Eagles in the regular season in 2014, but lost to them in the state semifinals that season and in Centennial League play last season — have a large and veteran offensive line, an experienced quarterback under center in senior Gunnar Lamphere and the state’s leading rusher in senior Hayden Blubaugh.

All those tools are important keys to extending drives on offense, shortening the game and keeping the ball out of the hands Valor Christian and star quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, a University of Michigan commitment.

“The biggest key is being successful at controlling the ball on offense and controlling the pace of the game,” Schultz said. “Where it has turned against us in the past is when they have controlled the pace the of game and gotten some big plays, which got the defense backup and our offense questioning itself.

“We’re 2-for-5 against them and the two times we’ve won, we’ve controlled the pace of play on offense.”

Grandview is far and away 5A’s leading team in terms of scoring — with 449 points after a 37-7 victory over 11th-seeded Legacy on Nov. 11 at Stutler Bowl — so Schultz’s team knows how to get on the scoreboard in multiple ways. The way they score will be important.

Against Legacy, Grandview launched a 13-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in Lamphere’s 1-yard touchdown run, a series that ate up six minutes on the clock and set a tone.

Blubaugh scored three touchdowns — including one on a 99-yard missed field goal return —  and Lamphere found junior Gunner Gentry for another score as the Wolves imposed their will on the Lightning the entire ballgame on their way to their 12th consecutive first round playoff victory.

That won’t be easy to do against a Valor Christian team that is very stout defensively, especially in the last six weeks. The Eagles posted one of only two shutouts in the opening round of the playoffs with a 42-0 victory over 14th-seeded Cherokee Trail Nov. 11 and have given up more than seven points just one time in its past six games.

Valor Christian’s defense allowed nearly 150 yards rushing to the Cougars, but generated four turnovers (three fumble recoveries and an interception) to negate any of Cherokee Trail’s threats.

Schultz has on offense that definitely stands out in his mind and he’s had plenty of good ones in his 13 seasons at Grandview.

“I feel that this is one of our one or two best offensive seasons we’ve had; the other one was in 2007 (when the Wolves won the 5A state championship),” Schultz said. “I know these guys are trying to break all of those records, so hopefully we have a couple of more games for them to do it.”

Defensively, Grandview has ceded two fewer points on the season than Valor Christian has in 11 games, though Smoky Hill (28), Doherty (27) and Overland (19) all had decent offensive outputs against it in recent weeks, though each of those games essentially were in the Wolves’ control early.

Grandview had trouble containing Dylan McCaffrey in last season’s meeting between the teams and the Wolves’ defense has its hands full with him again this season.

Against Cherokee Trail, McCaffrey threw for 200 yards and four touchdowns (three to brother Luke, who had 119 yards receiving) and also rushed for one. McCaffrey had four touchdowns against Grandview in last season’s matchup with two passing, one rushing and one receiving. He’ll be a challenge for a Grandview defense that is still developing experience.

“We’re a little young on defense, which we remind ourselves of,” Schultz said. “We have a lot of juniors on the field and hopefully now they are starting to grow up and play like seniors.”

Blubaugh and Gentry are expected to add some experience and ballhawking ability in the defensive backfield.

The winner of the Grandview-Valor Christian showdown moves into the semifinals where it will face the winner of seventh-seeded Cherry Creek and second-seeded Mullen.

Capsule preview of the Grandview vs. Valor Christian matchup, here.

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel