SALT LAKE CITY — East’s defense has evolved into a ball-hawking machine, something the Highland Rams learned firsthand Friday.
The Leopards forced a staggering seven turnovers and limited Highland to just 128 yards of total offense in a convincing 29-7 homecoming victory in front of a packed house.
The turnovers were a sweet sight for East’s coaching staff after last season.
“Last year we were really bad with turnovers. We were always on the negative. For some reason we could never get a takeaway,” said East coach Brandon Matich. “So we really focus on it every day in practice, and try and strip the ball and get turnovers and put our kids in position to get interceptions and things of that nature.”
East was in position to make those plays Friday, and time after time after time it took advantage, ultimately forcing four interceptions and three fumbles.
Three of those turnovers led directly to points as the Leopards built a 22-0 halftime lead in a choppy game in which neither offense could get much going. Matich said it wasn’t a surprise considering that both teams run the triple option incredibly well.
“They should know how to defend us better than anybody 'cause we run the same stuff, and likewise. We were just able to get the perimeter, and we had some turnovers on defense that made the difference in the game,” said Matich, whose team is now plus-15 in takeaways this year after just five games.
Early on, Highland’s defense looked up for the challenge of slowing down East’s potent offense, forcing a punt and missed field goal, but that defense was helpless to stop its own team’s miscues.
Four of Highland’s six first-half possessions resulted in turnovers — two fumbles, two interceptions — and East’s average starting field position on those four drives was Highland’s 31-yard line.
Good teams make a living punishing mistakes, and East did just that.
After missing a field goal following their first takeaway, the Leopards punched the next three into the end zone to open up a 22-0 halftime lead.
East running back Malakai Solovi made it 7-0 on a 5-yard TD run with 51 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Midway through the second quarter he increased East’s lead to 14-0 as he weaved his way through and around six or seven would-be Highland tacklers for a 23-yard score.
“He’s a physical kid. He runs really, really hard; he finishes strong. He had a great offseason; he worked really hard. Really proud of the Malakai (that) played on both sides of the ball,” said Matich.
Solovi finished with 104 rushing yards as Highland’s defense keyed on stuffing the middle and containing East leading rusher Ula Tolutau.
Just before the half, Preston Curtis proved to be a one-man wrecking crew for East. He set his team up with great field position on a diving interception, and then six plays later Curtis punched it in from the 2-yard line, increasing the lead to 22-0 — he converted the two-point conversion too.
“They took (Tolutau) away, but we were able to get to edge with Preston and Malakai, so we have other weapons,” said Matich.
Highland briefly made things interesting early in the fourth quarter as quarterback Jamahl Greer cut the deficit to 22-7 on a 1-yard score. East, however, recovered the ensuing onside kick and Isaac Valles scored three plays later on a 33-yard run to put the game away.
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