ST. GEORGE — Perhaps more so than anyone else, Mike Needham wanted another shot at Cedar.
In the regular season finale three weeks ago, Desert Hills' star running back watched the majority of the game from the sideline and was helpless to do anything as Cedar rolled to the 28-point win.
In Friday's rematch in the 3A semifinals at Dixie State College, Needham demonstrated how dominant he can be with two good ankles instead of just one.
Needham carried the ball 33 times for 166 yards, and even though he couldn't crack the end zone, his ability to move the sticks all night was instrumental in leading Desert Hills to the 23-21 victory over Cedar to advance to next week's state championship.
"Our offensive line from the very get go was pushing their line back, so I just wanted to keep getting the ball," said Needham. "It was good to get them back and show them what we're really about."
Friday's win was Desert Hills' third straight since the humbling Cedar loss, and coach Jake Nelson could kind of sense it coming.
"All week long I could look in their eyes and I could tell they were amped up and ready to play. They knew they made some mistakes the first time and they just wanted an opportunity to prove that we are a better team that than first game," said Nelson, whose team will meet Region 9 foe Hurricane in next week's state championship.
The Thunder were at their best in the fourth quarter, scoring twice to open up a 23-14 with 4:47 remaining. After Cedar quarterback John Ursua was intercepted by Bud Pope — his third pick of the game — it appeared Desert Hills would comfortably run out the clock. It was forced to sweat it out more than it anticipated.
A bad snap on third down forced Desert Hills to punt. Cedar only needed three plays to march 86 yards, with Kole Halladay hauling in a halfback pass from Kaden Garrett to cut the lead to 23-21 with 2:38 remaining.
Desert Hills recovered the onside kick, and there was never any doubt what it would do. It handed the ball to Needham five straight times who muscled his way for two first downs to run out the clock.
"Mike Needham got rolling, and once that kid gets going and he's healthy there's almost nothing he can't do," said Nelson.
Before back-up quarterback Nate Brinker hit Ty Rutledge for a 33-yard TD pass and then Cole Kiser for a 10-yard TD strike in the fourth quarter to open up a 23-14 lead, there was a sense around Hansen Stadium that John Ursua's big play ability might be the difference.
With 7:19 remaining in the third quarter, Cedar's quarterback turned what appeared to be a sack into a 68-yard touchdown scamper to give the Redmen the 14-10 lead.
"John Ursua is absolutely the most amazing athlete I've ever seen on a football field. We have some great football players, but that kid as far as athletic ability is unbelievable, my hats off to the kid," said Nelson. "You can't assume he's down, you have to make sure he's on the ground."
Ursua finished with 166 yards and two touchdowns, but Desert Hills bottled up fullback Hayden Bishop who only managed 29 yards after going off for 177 in the previous meeting.
Ursua opened the scoring on Cedar's first drive of the game with a 44-yard TD run, but his team turned it over three times the rest of the first half. Desert Hills struggled with two turnovers as well, but still led 10-7 at the half thanks to a Porter Harris 6-yard TD pass to Kiser and then a Gustavo Morales-Alegria field goal.
Harris had to leave early in the third quarter after re-injuring his knee and finger, but he was fantastic until that point completing 15 of 17 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown.