SALT LAKE CITY — It was sloppy — plagued by penalties, turnovers and other mistakes — but one thing was crystal clear at the East-West football game on Friday night.
There can never be another break in the state's oldest and most-played rivalry.
The two teams played for the 110th time on Friday night following a one-year break in the series, and the Leopards earned a hard-fought 24-14 win in front of a jam-packed crowd at Gean Plaga Stadium. It was East's ninth straight win over West, and the Leopards earned the school's 500th win.
It was a historic win for East, and in an electric atmosphere. The bleachers on both sides were completely full, and spectators had to stand along the field's surrounding fence to see the action.
"It was pretty cool," said East coach Brandon Matich, who was involved in the rivalry for the first time as a head coach. "It was everything I expected and more. It gave me goosebumps. The game was different from the word go. When we arrived, we could feel the energy in the air and the tension in the air. It was everything it was cracked up to be."
The game started off with fireworks, with the Leopards putting together a smash-mouth, five-play, 71-yard drive that culminated with Liti Molisi scoring on a 19-yard run. West quickly answered, as Shaquil Delli returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
East had chances to blow the game open, but made four straight trips to the red zone without scoring points. That kept West in the game until the fourth quarter, but a couple of costly turnovers caused the Panthers to unravel.
East took the lead in the third quarter when Tanela Tu'uhetaufa recovered a fumble in the end zone. The Leopards recovered another fumble in the fourth quarter, and quickly took advantage. Tu'uhetaufa scored on an 8-yard run to make it 24-7 with 4:45 to play.
"That wasn't me — that was team," Tu'uhetaufa said of the fumble he recovered in the end zone that turned the game's momentum. "We played together, played with heart and got the win. We were really looking forward to this."
Molisi was East's workhorse against West. He rushed 31 times for 202 yards, and gave every bit of credit to his starting linemen — Merrill Taliauli, Vaha Vainuku, Liki Pututau, Sam Tuai and McCord Thorley.
"It was my line up front," Molisi said. "I wasn't doing anything, just running behind them. That's all I do."
East's defense showed tons of improvement from the team's game against West Jordan last week. The Leopards completely shut down the Panthers' high-powered run game. Rennie Vaka led the effort with a timely sack in the fourth quarter and a fumble recovery.
"I'm proud of our defense," Matich said. "They didn't play very well last week, but they stepped it up tonight."1 comment on this story
The Leopards know they have some things to clean up as they head to Region 6 play. They had 15 penalties in their victory, and had way too many breakdowns inside West's 20.
But of course, they'll take a win any way they can get it in the state's oldest rivalry.
"It was ugly, but it was fun," Molisi said. "It was intense."