EL PASO — With the game potentially on the line and the El Paso-Gridley High School football team with its back to the wall last Saturday, coach Stephen Rigsby didn't have to dig too deep into the playbook for the Titans to find a way out of their fix.
He simply needed to turn to junior running back Ryne Faulk.
"We gave him the ball and said 'take us home, big boy,'" said Rigsby. "And, he did."
Faulk carried the ball 11 times for 79 yards on a fourth-quarter, 95-yard scoring drive that sealed EPG's first playoff win in school history and sent the Titans into the second round of the Class 2A playoffs. They'll face Knoxville at 2 p.m. Saturday at El Paso.
Faulk capped last week's eight-minute, 12-second march with a 23-yard TD run that gave EPG a 27-19 lead over No. 4 state-ranked Rockridge. The Titans held on to defeat the Rockets, 29-26.
"We knew going into the drive that we needed to chew up the clock," Faulk said. "They believed in me and gave me the ball. The line adjusted to their defense more and we had a big push."
The adjustment by the line was vital. The Rockridge defense had limited Faulk to 15 yards on 12 carries prior to the decisive drive.
"We didn't run the ball real well the whole game, to be honest," Rigsby said. "But we ended up finding something we could run well, a power play off the edge and you have to give credit to the line guys."
Most notably, guard Drew Gilbert led the way to the edge with Faulk in tow.
"None of the runs were big, long ones," Rigsby said. "A big thing for Ryne is, he's very good at gaining additional yards after the initial contact and he'd be bouncing off two or three guys. As the drive went on, they kept bringing more guys at him and he was still gaining three or four yards a play."
Faulk showed more than a glimmer of that same determination during the offseason a year ago.
For starters, he gained about 35 pounds between his sophomore and junior year to reach his current weight of 185.
"That was a big goal for me," Faulk said. "If I wanted to take the main responsibility for carrying the ball, I had to start every day in the weight room and just grind it out."
The lifting grind helped Faulk blossom from a back who gained 441 yards while playing second fiddle as a sophomore to a featured back who's averaging 142 yards per game this season.
"He played a decent amount last year as our second running back," Rigsby said. "He got a little banged up, but got some good playing time toward the end of the year. We knew he was going to be a good player this year, but we didn't know exactly what we were going to get."
They ended up getting one of the area's rushing leaders with 1,421 yards heading into Saturday, as well as a hard-nosed defensive player roaming the field from a linebacker slot.
Faulk said he prefers the offensive side and the gratification of the 17 touchdowns he's scored this season, but also is happy to help out the team on defense.
"He does everything we ask him to do," Rigsby said. "He's gotten bigger and stronger. He dedicates himself in the weight room and the classroom and leads by example. He's pretty much the type of kid that everybody wants to coach."
EPG enters Saturday's second round with a four-game winning streak.
The Titans' playoff prospects looked slim at the beginning of October when they were 2-4 and needed to win the remainder of their regular-season games to qualify for an at-large berth.
"Our defense started gaining some momentum in the win against Tremont," Faulk said. "That was a big one. We were down in the first half and came back. We've been on a roll ever since."
Following the 34-12 victory over the Turks, the EPG defense shut out Ridgeview-Lexington, 32-0, before the Titans squeaked out a 26-23 decision over Eureka in the regular-season finale.
Knoxville is on a winning streak of its own. The Blue Bullets started 0-2 before reeling off eight straight victories. Knoxville has scored at least 41 points in each of the eight wins.
It defeated Chicago Marshall, 66-20, last Saturday to advance after scoring 60 in a win over Peoria Heights in their regular-season finale.
"They're really big with four or five guys who are 265-plus," Rigsby said. "That's not a huge disadvantage for us, but we are going to have to meet force with force this week, that's for sure."