SALEM, Utah County — The game between the Salem Hills Skyhawks and their cross-county rival Orem Tigers had all the makings for an epic battle Thursday night, and what a battle it was.
The game went down to the final drive that included two fourth-down conversions and a slew of clutch plays by Orem’s offense before the Salem Hills defense responded.
Trailing by five, the Tigers got the ball with just under five minutes left to play in the contest. With two spectacular fourth-down conversions, Orem controlled the ball down to its last desperate push before the Salem Hills defense held on a fourth-and-10 to preserve the 25-20 non-region victory.
"I was proud of the way our defense came together and held off that last drive. It got a little scary at the end, but we got it done," said Salem Hills defender Porter Gustin.
In fact, it was a pair of stunning defensive maneuvers late in the third quarter that finally tipped the see-sawing lead back in the Skyhawks' favor.
Salem Hills' Jordan "Vegas" Taylor recorded a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown to give Salem Hills the 19-13 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter.
Less than a minute later Cooper Smith recorded his fifth interception in the last three games to end another Orem drive.
Early in the fourth, Jacob Armstrong scored the eventual game-winning touchdown with a 3-yard run for the Skyhawks.
The halftime speech of Salem Hills coach Joel Higginson served as motivation for the Skyhawks' second-half surge.
“Good teams play good with their backs against the wall (and) bad teams crumble in that situation," Higginson said he told his team at the break. "I know we are a good team and if we come out in the third quarter and set the tone defensively, we can get the win because we know how to win.”
The third quarter saw the Skyhawks come out fighting before responding up with the pair of picks that swung the momentum in their favor.
Defensively, Gustin, who couldn't play quarterback because his right throwing arm was wrapped in a cast resembling an over-sized boxing glove, recorded 10 tackles in the victory.
“It was bittersweet knowing I won’t be back the rest of the season, so I wanted to go out on a high note tonight," Gustin said, who will undergo surgery Friday to repair a broken thumb he suffered earlier in the year against Provo.
With their third consecutive win, the Skyhawks improve to 6-1, while the Tigers fall to 2-5.
The Skyhawks drew first blood when quarterback Chad Peterson connected with both of his two senior receivers in Zac Zobell for a 35-yard touchdown and Gunnar Gustin for a 5-yard touchdown to put Salem Hills up 12-0.
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It was all Orem in the second quarter, however. The Tigers answered with 13 straight points to go into halftime with both the lead and the momentum. Salem Hills held the Tigers to just one second-half score.
Salem Hills is back in action Wednesday when it travels to Springville, while Orem travels to Corner Canyon.
Prior to the game Thursday, Salem Hills High School had both end zones ringed with 108 American flags in moving pre-game tribute to local veteran. Then 12 additional flags were carried onto the field in a grand Skyhawk entrance accompanied by fireworks and a drum corps.