SARATOGA SPRINGS — What looked to be a sloppy defensive struggle took on a different complexion in the second half, as East used a handful of big plays to blow open a tight game and defeat Westlake, 48-28, in the opening round of the 4A state football playoffs.
Building off a blistering third-quarter rally, East sent one of the state's youngest schools packing while one of Utah's oldest high schools moves on to the state quarterfinals.
Entering as the No. 3 seed in Region 6 at 7-2, the Leopards squashed any hopes the Thunder — Region 7's second seed at 8-1 — had of a deep playoff run in only their second season in existence. East will face Mountain Crest, the top team in Region 5, next weekend.
In the first half, neither East nor Westlake was especially sharp. East missed a 42-yard field goal and had two touchdowns called back on penalties. For their part, the Thunder fumbled at the 1-yard line after sustaining a 68-yard drive by converting on third-and-long three times, and they also had a touchdown negated because of an offensive pass interference call.
Jason Cook got things going for the Leopards in the second quarter, scoring on a 68-yard punt return and a 10-yard run late in the period, and Westlake's John Ursua got the Thunder on the board with an 8-yard scoring run to set up a 14-7 halftime score. After intermission, East established a whole new tempo for what had been a slugfest to that point.
"Our coaches told us to keep pounding," said East running back Liti Molisi. "They said to keep our focus and sense of urgency. We came out aggressive in the second half."
After receiving the second-half kickoff, East needed only one minute to score. Senior quarterback Tanner Curtis dropped back for one of his five pass attempts on the night and lofted the ball to John Fakahafua. The 6-foot-2 sophomore grabbed the ball as it drifted just over the outstretched arms of a defender and he darted 80 yards to the end zone.
After forcing Westlake to punt, East grew its lead to 28-7 a mere 75 seconds after Fakahafua's big play, this time when Cook took a pitch and dashed around defenders for a 75-yard touchdown run. Curtis kept the momentum alive with a 50-yard scoring run about three minutes later to push the margin to 34-7.
Those big plays were complimented by Molisi's workhorse performance. The junior running back piled up 199 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries and sustained many of East's long drives, which kept the dangerous Ursua off the field.
"My line is the biggest and most dominant in the state," Molisi said. "All I have to do is get behind them and keep my feet moving."
Westlake's typically explosive offense managed only 44 rushing yards in the opening half. Ursua, who amassed more than 2,000 total yards and 34 touchdowns during the regular season, threw for 283 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 118 yards and another pair of scores. Westlake's offense sputtered often, however, punting five times and recording three turnovers.