When the 5A football playoff brackets were finalized, no team appeared to have a more daunting draw than Northridge.
First, the Knights had to play at Alta, which had advanced to the Rice-Eccles Stadium turf in five straight seasons. If Northridge got past the Hawks, a quarterfinal matchup with Bingham loomed.
Discouraging? Not for the Knights.
"I was happy because when I was a freshman, we watched film on Alta and played Bingham, and that was something I just wanted to do," said Northridge quarterback Trent Buckley. "I wanted to be on their level, play them and give them a run. It just sounded like fun to me."
Buckley had a good time in eliminating the Hawks last week, but it will be exponentially more difficult to advance another round. Northridge gets its shot at top-ranked Bingham in the quarterfinals today. The Miners are ranked No. 4 in the nation by USA Today and have won 21 straight games.
"I'm excited," Buckley said. "They've shown themselves to be one of the best teams to go through Utah — probably ever. I'm excited to have an opportunity to go after them, get to play them and give them a run for their money."
The Knights probably have about as good a shot as any remaining playoff team of giving the Miners a run. They have a versatile offense, as Buckley is a tough runner who has greatly improved as a passer during his high school career. Northridge also has a good defense, one that held Alta to 14 points and forced three second-half turnovers.
There are three other 5A quarterfinal games being played today, as Riverton travels to Lone Peak, Fremont hosts Skyline and Jordan plays at Cottonwood. Many people believe the 5A tournament is a formality before Bingham is crowned as state champion, but the Miners can expect to get everyone's best shot the rest of the way.
"Everyone probably has got Bingham penciled in as the state champion," said Northridge coach Erik Thompson. "If you can't win it all, you'd like to take a shot at that team. As it would be, opportunity is knocking and we're given that shot. Other than the state champion, everyone is going to end their year on a loss. I'd just as soon have it be to the best team around — see how we measure up."
The Knights certainly aren't conceding a loss to the Miners, who have eliminated them from the playoffs in two of the last five postseasons. They also know there are several factors that need to happen for them to win today. They may need to play close to perfectly.
"We need to win the turnover battle, not necessarily get turnovers, but prevent ourselves from giving turnovers," Buckley said. "We need to move the ball on them, not get down if we make mistakes … well, there's a lot of things we need to do."
Bingham coach Dave Peck is impressed with several of Northridge's players, including Buckley, running back Jordan Lee and defensive lineman Paisa Savea. Peck, however, knows that his team has an advantage in this game because none of his players go both ways, while a few of Northridge's stars play both offense and defense.
"That's always going to be to our advantage," Peck said. "Our team, no doubt has great individual talent, but the overall depth of our team is what's so special about our group."
Three other quarterfinal winners hope to not only stay in the hunt for the state title but also get a shot at Bingham's special group.
In the lower bracket with Bingham and Northridge are Jordan and Cottonwood. The Beetdiggers are peaking at the right time and coming off a 52-7 thrashing of Davis. It was the most points the Darts had ever allowed and their largest margin of defeat in a state playoff game. Cottonwood's defense will undoubtedly face its toughest test of the season in defending quarterback McCoy Hill and the red-hot Beetdiggers.
Riverton-Lone Peak appears to be a game of evenly matched teams, as both of them are 10-1. Fremont, which has won nine straight games, looks to reach the turf for the first time in four seasons by beating Skyline.
Of the eight teams remaining in 5A, only Jordan and Skyline have more than two losses. The Eagles have the worst record of the remaining teams at 6-4, but no one should be overlooked at this point, according to Riverton coach Mike Miller.
"Everyone left in 5A are all pretty good," Miller said. "Everyone is good enough to beat everyone at this point. But I don't know who anyone has in the other games. I'm just focused on ours."
Interestingly, two teams from each of the four 5A regions are in the quarterfinals. That shows that while there is one dominant, juggernaut team, no league was head-and-shoulders above the rest.
"That does tell you there is some balance in the state," Peck said.