Sunday, 26 September 2021

Johnson’s takeaways help Hilltops return to winning ways

Konner Johnson runs back an interception for the Hilltops.
Konner Johnson prefers to play football on Sundays instead of watching it on TV.

The 21-year-old Melfort, Sask., product will never discount how great it is to play games for the Saskatoon Hilltops after the 2020 CJFL campaign was cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has gripped the world.

After being a backup linebacker during his first two CJFL championship seasons with the Hilltops in 2018 and 2019, Johnson took part in six weeks of practices the team was able to hold in September and October of 2020.

In the CJFL’s return in 2021, Johnson is a starter at outside linebacker. On Sunday, he came up with a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery to allow the Hilltops to end an two-game losing skid as they got past the visiting Winnipeg Rifles 25-10 at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.

Konner Johnson had two interceptions for the Hilltops on Sunday.
“Practice is fun, but this is what we practice for is the game day,” said Johnson, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 210 pounds. “Last year and last fall, it was pretty boring just going to practice and being on the weekends doing nothing watching NFL.

“I like playing myself.”

The win for the Hilltops, who improved to 3-2, was far from a masterpiece against the Rifles, who fell to 1-4. Saskatoon committed a lot of fundamental errors turning the ball over seven times on three interceptions, two fumbles and twice on downs to go along with botches on a number of long snaps on special teams.

The Hilltops celebrate a fumble recovery from Konner Johnson, centre.
The Hilltops defence led by Johnson created six takeaways coming on three interceptions, one fumble recovery and stopping the Rifles twice on third down gambles.

Winnipeg jumped out to a 10-7 lead in the first quarter, but the visitor’s momentum was stalled as Johnson had his fumble recovery and one of his interceptions in the contest’s first 15 minutes.

“I love being on the field as much as I can making plays,” said Johnson. “That is what I like to do.”

Johnson said he likely had his best game of the season for this point in the year. He was well aware Sunday’s game wasn’t a work of art, and everyone on the team needs to play better.

RB Ivan Jaque runs in a touchdown for the Rifles.
“I think we have a lot more as a team to go,” said Johnson, who is a graduate of the nine-man Melfort and Unit Comprehensive Collegiate Comets football team. “I think we can all play better, so that is what we are looking forward to.”

Heading into Sunday’s action, Johnson sat second in the PFC with 61 defensive points coming on 24 total tackles, one quarterback sack, three pass knockdowns and one interception.

Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant thought Johnson was on the verge of a major game-breaking performance, which came in Sunday’s win.

“Konner has to be one of the most dominant players in the CJFL, and he proved that today that he is at that caliber,” said Sargeant. “We have to keep building on that.

Brant Morrow runs back a long punt return for the Hilltops.
“He is starting to set the tone as being a difference maker and a playmaker. If we get more guys playing like him, it is going to really tighten this field up and make it tough for offences to have a lot of success. It was great to see.

“We’ve been waiting for it to happen. As I said, it happened today.”

The Rifles started the contest taking the opening kickoff and executing a quick kick play. The Winnipeg kick returner kicked the ball up field, and an onside man recovered the boot to allow the visitors to start their first offensive series just inside the Hilltops side of the 55 yard line.

Winnipeg proceeded to march that opening series downfield culminating in a three-yard touchdown run from running back Ivan Jaque to go ahead 7-0.

Mason Ochs, left, makes a big block for the Hilltops.
Just over three minutes later, the Hilltops offence got set up on the Winnipeg one yard line after a 56-yard punt return from safety Brant Morrow.

Running back Boston Davidsen plunged in from a yard out to even the score at 7-7.

Before the first quarter ended, the Rifles got a 14-yard field goal from kicker Matt Kennedy to go ahead 10-7. Kennedy’s field goal was set up, when Hilltops punter Doug Fleming’s knee touched the turf fielding a bad long snap.

With 5:09 remaining in the second quarter, the Hilltops went ahead on the scoreboard, when quarterback Damon Dutton hit second-year receiver Lachlan Horsley with a five-yard touchdown pass. The Hilltops weren’t able to get the kick away on the ensuing convert due to a bad snap causing their advantage to sit at 13-10.

Luciano Jolly, right, opens a hole for Boston Davidsen, left.
On their first drive of the second half, Dutton hit speedy receiver Ethan Godson with a 22-yard touchdown pass to put the Hilltops up 19-10. The convert attempt from kicker Carter Sirman was blocked.

Before the third quarter ended, Dutton connected with Godson on a 25-yard touchdown toss to go ahead 25-10. The Hilltops attempted to go for a two-point conversion, but Dutton’s pass was incomplete.

“We’re kind of riding some waves right now,” said Godson, who caught eight passes for 123 yards to go with his two major scores. “We’re having some good drives, but little mistakes are holding us back.

Bryce Marino returns an interception for the Rifles.
“We just have to get a little more consistent and start driving the ball all the way down the field and finishing our drives.”

Johnson made his second interception of the contest in the fourth quarter to help the Hilltops preserve their 15-point win. While the victory wasn’t pretty, Johnson is happy it came and hopes give his team a boost.

“I hope it gives us the confidence we need,” said Johnson. “We have a long season to go yet.”

Davidsen had a big outing on the ground for the Hilltops piling up 137 yards on 21 carries to go with his rushing major. Dutton completed 22-of-33 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing three interceptions.

Ethan Godson, left, scores his second of two major for the Hilltops.
Rifles starting quarterback Thomas Hubbard completed 15-of-28 passes for 135 yards, while throwing two interceptions. Backup Bryson McNeil got in for a handful of series scattered through the contest, but he was unable to complete any of his four pass attempts throwing one interception.

Defensive lineman Daylen Hartz and middle linebacker Matt Wist each had sacks for the Hilltops, while defensive back Evan Mantyka had an interception.

Linebacker Brayden Clarke had a sack for the Rifles. Winnipeg defensive back Kyle Chorney had nine total tackles and an interception, while defensive back Bryce Marino and linebacker Brandon Kamenz had single interceptions.

Hilltops DT Dylan McNutt, left, chases down Rifles QB Bryson McNeil.
The Hilltops 3-2 record places them third in the Prairie Football Conference standings behind the first place Regina Thunder (5-0) and the second place Edmonton Huskies (4-1). The Rifles sit fifth in the six-team conference.

The Hilltops host the Huskies this coming Sunday at 1 p.m. at SMF Field in a battle for second place in the PFC. Saskatoon took the first encounter between the two sides 18-17 on August 22 at Jasper Place Bowl in Edmonton.

Sargeant was pleased with how his defence played in the win over the Rifles, but he know his offence and special teams have to be a lot better in the clash with the Huskies.

The Hilltops faithful enjoyed their team’s win on Sunday.
“I think our pass rush was better today,” said Sargeant, who doubles as the Hilltops offensive coordinator. “Our coverages were better today.

“Everything that we wanted to improve on defensively we did. The problem is the things we wanted to improve on offence and special teams we did not. We’re going to keep building on that defensive performance, but we have to improve the other two areas if we are going to be the team we want to be next week against the Edmonton Huskies.”

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