This is a statement game. No more underdogs for us. —East tight end Joe Tukuafu
SALT LAKE CITY — East wanted to send a message to the state against a perennial 5A powerhouse on its own field.
It did just that.
The Leopards flustered Alta’s high-potent offense with a relentless pass rush, and physically dominated the line of scrimmage from the onset en route to a convincing 42-24 win against Alta Friday night.
“This is a statement game,” East tight end Joe Tukuafu said. “No more underdogs for us.”
“I guess maybe a little bit, you know, a 4A school vs. a 5A power,” East coach Brandon Matich added when asked if his team felt like underdogs. “I think our kids felt like they were being disrespected a little bit, that Alta was going to come in here and beat us up pretty good.”
It became apparent on Alta’s opening drive that the offensive line had its hands full with the East defense. On third down, several Leopards shrugged off blocks and sacked quarterback Chipper Lucero for a 14-yard loss.
Pinned deep in its own territory, the sack switched the field, and eventually led to Preston Curtis’ 5-yard touchdown run to give East an early 7-0 lead. Then, on the ensuing drive, Lucero evaded pressure from the pocket but tossed an interception to Tualagi Laupata, who quickly made a house-call from 30 yards out.
“Our kids are fired up,” Matich said. “I wouldn’t say it’s an emotional thing, but they’re really high energy right now. They can’t wait to get on the field. We felt like we were caged dogs in the locker room.”
The Hawks battled back. After a 42-yard field goal by Taylor Hintze, Lucero finally found his favorite target — Mack Richards, who was blanketed by two defenders the entire night. Richards took a middle-screen 63 yards to the East 11-yard line, and three plays later Lucero hit Nate Tehan to pull within 14-10.
However, Malakai Solovi returned the following kickoff to midfield, allowing the Leopards to embark on a short six-play drive that culminated with a play-action pass from quarterback Isaac Valles to Tukuafu with 16 seconds remaining in the second half.
“He had a great game didn’t he? He did a great job,” Matich said of Tukuafu, who played in his first game after a one-year hiatus. “Joe is a really good leader and a good kid, and that makes him a good player.”
On East’s opening drive of the third quarter, a 46-yard slant pass to Curtis positioned the Leopards for another play-action pass to Tukuafu, and a 28-10 lead.
“The kid is phenomenal,” Matich said of Curtis. He played well at corner and caught a couple passes. He did well on those jet sweeps and found the end zone. We knew that we had to get Preston the ball this year, and we’re going to work really hard to do so. He had a really good night.”
Alta pulled the game to 35-24 late on a one-yard run by Lucero late in the fourth quarter after exchanging scores, but with 3:14 remaining, East capped the opening-week win with an 18-yard strike to Curtis, who dodged two would-be defenders on his way to paydirt.
“You make a lot of mistakes and beat a team like Alta, you’ve got to feel pretty good, but we’ve got a long way to go offensively in terms of pass blocking and cleaning up where we’re supposed to go on our blocking rules,” Matich said. “It’s the first game, and those things happen. We’ll work on those things and get better.”