SALT LAKE CITY — Special teams play had been a sore spot for Highland throughout the state playoffs. The Rams knew that had to change against Mountain Crest if they were to make good on their underdog state title hopes.
Once the Mustangs scored on their possession in the second overtime, the chance was there for Highland to prove it had finally improved that phase of the game.
"I told our defense to crank it up and turn it up a notch," Rams senior Nate Fakahafua said. "They're going to go for two, but I knew we were going to stop them."
Mountain Crest indeed went for a two-point conversion to cement a dramatic victory, but Thomas Conner was there to meet Nate Rigby at the line after Alex Kuresa handed him the ball.
Rigby got stopped cold by Conner and Fakahafua and the Rams celebrated a 37-36 double-overtime win over the Mustangs Friday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It was Highland's first 4A title since 1986.
The last-second, dramatic finish was made possible by a series of big plays from both teams down the stretch.
With Mountain Crest holding a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Rams rallied to tie it up at 24-24 when Fakahafua hauled in a 43-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds left in regulation.
The Mustangs tried to respond in the final minute. Kuresa drove his team down to the Rams' 30 with one second left. But Highland junior Anthony Smithson picked off Kuresa's potential game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone as time expired.
"I know I had to go up and make a play," Smithson said. "My team depended on me. So I had to go up and make a play and that's what I did."
Smithson and Fakahafua took turns making big plays in overtime. After Rigby scored on a 5-yard run to make it 30-24, Fakahafua went up between two defenders and grabbed a 25-yard touchdown pass on fourth down to tie it at 30-30. Then, in the second overtime, Smithson scored on a four-yard run to make it 37-30.
It was just part of huge overall game for both players. Smithson had 250 yards and three touchdowns on 14-of-21 passing. Fakahafua had 10 of those receptions and all three touchdowns for 200 yards to set a new state record.
Highland coach Brody Benson was pleased with the leadership Smithson showed from start to finish.
"I asked him the other day if he was nervous, and he looked at me like I was crazy," Benson said. "The kid is icewater. He just shows up and he plays football. That's what he does."
Rigby had another scoring run — this time from two yards out — to bring Mountain Crest to within a point. But the failed conversion kept it from being a title-winning play like the Mustangs had hoped.
Benson credited his players for fighting each time it seemed like Mountain Crest had made a decisive play to claim the title.
"This whole season they never quit," Benson said. "We never got down. We never said die."
The late offensive fireworks stood in contrast to a defensive battle during the first half that ended with Mountain Crest clinging to a 9-7 lead.
Things began to break open in the third quarter when Fakahafua out jumped Faimafili Laulu-Pututau for a pass from Smithson, snatched the ball out of the air and raced untouched for a 74-yard touchdown to make it 14-9 for the Rams. The Mustangs answered with their own big scoring play on the ensuing drive when Kuresa found Rigby for a 46-yard bomb to make it 17-14.
Highland knotted it at 17-17 with 10:28 left in the fourth quarter after Hayes Hicken drilled a 28-yard field goal. The Rams had to settle for three points after an apparent 11-yard touchdown catch by Fakahafua was ruled out of bounds by the official nearest to the play. Replays showed that Fakahafua made the catch with both feet in the end zone.
Mountain Crest took a 24-17 lead with 3:22 remaining in the fourth period when Rigby punched it in from eight yards out.
It was a rare game where Kuresa engaged in an even duel with his counterpart on the opposing sideline. The senior threw for 293 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-38 passing.
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