SALT LAKE CITY — As opening game jitters slowly worked themselves away, Highland was able to overcome first-half struggles and finally put away a smash-mouth West team, winning the opener 21-10 on Friday.
"I think we played very hesitantly in the first half," said Highland head coach Brody Benson. "Sometimes playing in the first game, you can work a lot of the bugs out. I think in the second half, our offensive line started to set the tone."
Some of the bugs Benson spoke of came in the form of penalties — the Rams had seven in the first half alone — and an opening drive turnover when quarterback Austin Peterson was strip-sacked, coughing the ball away to Panthers linebacker Helaman Sagapolu.
"We definitely have our work cut out for us for this season," Benson said.
Peterson's offense was more effective on the ground than through the air on opening night. The Rams rushed for 230 yards, but he completed only two passes on six attempts. One of those completions, however, was a 10-yard scoring strike to Malcolm Card-Turner in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the victory.
The Rams were led on the ground by Dewey Clark, who finished with 61 yards on five carries. Lorenzo Vaafuti added 12 carries for 40 yards.
"I was really glad to see Dewey come along and do well in the second half," Benson said.
After a scoreless first quarter, Highland started a drive just inside West territory at the 48. Six plays, the Rams took the lead when Sydney Lauti headed to his left and scored untouched on a 15-yard run, sneaking just inside the pylon.
Highland took the 7-0 lead into the locker rooms, but West wasn't ready to concede.
Coming out after halftime, the Panthers marched down the field, eating up yards and game clock along the way. West went 50 yards in 13 plays, chewing up 8:06 off the clock and cutting into the lead with a 47-yard field goal by Alex Cody to bring it to 7-3.
Highland answered with a short scoring drive of its own, extending the lead to 14-3 with a seven-yard scoring run by Thomas Pembroke.
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After Peterson's touchdown pass to Kidd made it 21-3, West rallied to make it respectable. Quarterback Alex Espinoza, who finished 2-for-4 for 50 yards passing and had 21 carries for 106 yards, led the Panthers from their own 30.
Espinoza hit Tristan Mulder for a 45-yard pass that set up a five yard touchdown run by the QB to pull it to 21-10 with 2:08 left on the clock.
"It was the first time a lot of these kids had played in a varsity game," Benson said. "The speed of the game is a lot different.
Hopefully we got that out of our system and the kids know it's going to be a lot faster."
Overall, Benson said he was pleased with the win and is glad the coaching staff now has a benchmark by which to measure progress.