We're gonna have to play good to win. They’re a real solid team, very well-coached, and have a lot of similar types of players as we do. We need to take care of the ball, play disciplined defense and play well. —Kovi Christiansen, Morgan football head coach
CEDAR CITY — When Morgan and Manti square off Saturday in the 3A state football semifinals, they may very well look like mirror images of each other.
Both teams are 9-2 thus far this season, both teams like to run the heck out of the football, both teams boast high-scoring offensive attacks, and even their school names and mascots — Morgan Trojans, Manti Templars — start with the same letters of the alphabet and have a similar rhythm and phonetic symmetry about them.
Thus, Saturday's semifinal showdown at Southern Utah University shapes up as a dandy of a duel between two very comparable opponents.
And both coaches displayed mutual respect for each other's program.
"We're gonna have to play good to win," Morgan coach Kovi Christiansen said. "They’re a real solid team, very well-coached, and have a lot of similar types of players as we do. We need to take care of the ball, play disciplined defense and play well.
“They have a solid defense, and they're as good as any team we’ve played so far this year. They have great running backs, their misdirection is hard to attack, and it's hard to find out who has the ball. They've got big running backs and fast running backs, with a good balance of power and speed.
“Their quarterback throws a really good ball, too," the Trojans' coach said. "As soon as you start getting comfortable on defense and start loading up the box and try to stop the run, they’ll run some kind of bootleg pass play and burn you. They've got some good receivers and are just a real solid, well-rounded team."
Indeed, with a rushing attack fueled by Kamren Fowles, who has 155 carries for more than 1,200 yards and 19 touchdowns, it's easy to see why the Templars have averaged more than 33 points per game this season — the No. 4-ranked scoring offense in 3A football this year.
Throw in quarterback Connor Aste's 1,090 yards passing and 13 touchdowns, plus the running and receiving efforts of Jared Schiess — 53 carries for 388 yards and seven touchdowns, with 20 catches for 353 yards and six more scores — and the Templars are a mighty formidable foe.
The Templars will need every ounce of defensive energy they can muster on Saturday because Morgan has a mighty high-powered offense of its own.
The Trojans have averaged more than 35 points per game this season, giving them the second-highest scoring offense in the 3A ranks. Perhaps even more impressive, Morgan's defense has given up just 10.2 ppg this season — the No. 1-ranked scoring defense in all of 3A football this year.
Leading the way for the Trojans are quarterback Ben Saunders, who has thrown for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns, and the running back tandem of Kade Carrigan and Matt Murdock. Carrigan has 134 carries for 933 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Murdock has 100 carries for 679 yards and 10 more touchdowns.
Carrigan and Murdock are also Morgan's leading receivers. Carrigan has 20 catches for 429 yards and five touchdowns, and Murdock has 15 receptions for 237 yards and four more scores.
Needless to say, Manti head coach Cole Meacham is well aware of the two teams' similarities and expects Saturday's game to be a dogfight.
“I think we’re both really, really similar," he said. "Offensively, we've both got a pretty strong running game. And although we like to run the ball, both teams have got a quarterback that can throw it, too, and both do some good things with the football.
"We like to run the ball first, and we can throw the ball okay, too. But with Morgan, all I heard before is how they run, run, run the football. Yeah, they can sure run the ball, but this year they can sure throw it, too. So they've got us worried."
Coach Christiansen admitted that his Morgan team has definitely developed more of an aerial attack this year than it's usually had in seasons past.
“We have more of a passing game than we've had in the past," he said. "We've always been kind of reliant on the run. But this year, we've got some good receivers and we're able to both run and throw the football."
Coach Meacham sized up what he sees as the keys to Saturday's outcome.
"Defensively, we’ve got to get them off the field," he said. "We can't allow them to just come out and grind out 70-, 80-yard drives that take 15 plays. Last week against Richfield, they converted four or five fourth downs. They'd get it down to fourth-and-2 and just keep grinding it. So we've got to try and get them out of those kinds of drives.
"Our offense has got to keep themselves out of bad situations. And we've got to avoid penalties so we don’t get in that second-and-12 or third-and-9 type of situations. We've got to avoid penalties and get positive yards.
"We've struggled a little bit with penalties this year and, with a run-first team like ours, that’s tough. If you're in second-and-9, that’s a tough situation to be in for a running team like ours," Meacham said.
Manti statistical breakdown
Scoring offense: 33.3 ppg (4th in 3A)
Scoring defense: 21.1 ppg (6th in 3A)
Passing leader: Connor Aste (59-98, 60.2%, 1,090 yards, 13 TDs)
Interception leaders: Connor Aste (4 INTs)
Morgan statistical breakdown
Scoring offense: 35.1 ppg (2nd in 3A)
Scoring defense: 10.2 ppg (1st in 3A)
Passing leader: Ben Saunders (73-157, 46.5%, 1,329 yards, 12 TDs)
Interception leaders: Christian Elton (2)
Felt’s Facts for Manti High School
All-time record: 226-222 (46 years)
Region championships: 8 (1994, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005 co, 2009 co, 2011, 2012, 2013
Playoff appearances: 28
All-time playoff record: 29-23 (including 2013)
State championships: 4 (1999, 2003, 2011, 2012)
State championship record: 4-2
Felt’s Factoid(s): Manti is the only team — high school or college — in the United States (or anywhere else) whose mascot is the Templar.
Felt’s Facts for Morgan High School
All-time record: 433-319-22 (86 years)
Region championships: 21 (1930 co, 1935, 1939, 1940, 1946, 1947, 1975 co, 1976, 1977 co, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1989, 1991 co, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2005 co, 2008)
Playoff appearances: 46
All-time playoff record: 48-39 (including 2013)
State championships: 6 (1940, 1977, 1979, 1983, 1993, 1997)
State championship record: 6-4
Felt’s Factoid(s): Morgan holds the single-game sack record (tied with Weber) of 15, set in 1972 against Grantsville. Trojan Jordan Wamsley returned five kickoffs for TDs in 2009 to set a state season record (tied with San Juan’s Jens Wilson).