Long after the final whistle blew, Kyle Downer remained on the field last Saturday, the only burgundy-and-gold-clad player not enjoying the warm comforts of the team bus. The Oakton quarterback gritted his chattering teeth to give his umpteenth post-game interview, shrugging off a stiffening wind and near-freezing temperatures with the same toughness he used to shake off opponents all afternoon.
When he finally did trot off the field, there’s a pretty good chance Downer felt like a fish out of water. The senior had made a home for himself on the Westfield turf, having played every snap on offense and defense during the Division 6 Northern Region title game. His vital contributions at the quarterback and safety positions helped the Cougars claim their first region championship since 2008 in a 23-16 upset against undefeated Westfield.
“It’s great to be out there all the time, to be out there on both sides of the ball,” said Downer, who added a role in the defensive backfield to his starting quarterback duties at the start of the playoffs. “I’m still learning, but I like being out there all the time.”
Downer, a first-team All-Concorde District quarterback, made his presence felt all over the field Saturday. On offense, he ran for 124 yards and a touchdown in addition to throwing for 48 yards and two more scores. On defense, he had a key pass breakup on a Westfield deep ball and intercepted a pass on the last play of the first half to secure Oakton’s 13-7 lead going into the break.
Downer totaled just three completions on nine pass attempts, but all three catches featured prominently in the 23-7 lead the Cougars had built midway through the fourth quarter. Senior wide receiver Andy Boone snagged all three, turning two of them into touchdowns and the other into a 24-yard gain that set up a rushing touchdown by Downer.
Boone’s biggest moment came in the fourth quarter with his team facing fourth and goal from the Westfield three-yard line. Protecting a 16-7 lead with under seven minutes to go, Oakton’s offense saw a chance to effectively put the game away. Downer rolled to his left and fired a bullet to Boone, who brushed off a defender and held on to give Oakton a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“On fourth down, I knew it was coming to me,” Boone said. “I just needed that ball in my hands, and I knew I was going to catch it.”
The Cougars’ defense, meanwhile, continued a remarkable turnaround that has Oakton looking like a completely different team than the one that finished the regular season with four straight losses. That ugly stretch saw them surrender 36.75 points per game, a far cry from the 14.0 points per game the team has given up in its three playoff games.
Oakton clamped down on the region’s most dynamic offense through the first three quarters last weekend, a feat no other team had been able to accomplish all season against the Bulldogs. During its previous six games, Westfield averaged a 29-point lead going into the fourth quarter. The grand total of seven points it had built up through the first three quarters of Saturday’s game was a credit to an Oakton defense that forced two turnovers-on-downs inside the red zone and held first-team All-Concorde quarterback Chris Mullins to a season-low 67 yards passing.
“That’s why we’re winning,” Downer said about his team’s defense. “We’ve put it all together, and we’re very confident on both sides of the ball.”
According to Boone, the battered Cougars entered the playoffs three weeks ago with a renewed mindset. The team’s first-round game against Lake Braddock—a squad that ended Oakton’s season with a 50-21 win in last year’s playoffs—prompted Oakton players to adopt a theme of postseason revenge. A victory over the Bruins preceded a second-round win against Centreville, which crushed Oakton two weeks earlier in the regular season finale.
“It was an attitude adjustment,” Oakton coach Jason Rowley said. “Our seniors made the decision that they didn’t want their season to be over yet. We’ve gotten a little bit more physical on defense, and we’ve been doing the same things on offense all year. It’s just that now we’re finishing drives and putting the ball in the end zone.”
Last weekend’s win handed the Cougars their sixth region crown in the last 15 years. It also earned them a trip to this Saturday’s state semifinal game, which pits them against undefeated L.C. Bird at home. The Skyhawks -- champions of the Central Region -- boast a powerful ground game headed by Paul Robertson, who has racked up 539 yards and four touchdowns in the last two games.
“Coach preaches that we don’t just think that we can win; we know that we can win,” Downer said. “We really took a step back after four losses, and we looked at ourselves. We asked where we could take it. We decided to take it as far as possible.”