SALT LAKE CITY — On a day when America honors those who have valiantly defended our country, it seemed only fitting that fierce, fired-up defense would rule the day in Friday's first 5A football semifinal showdown.
In a physical, hard-fought defensive struggle that any U.S. soldier, fighter pilot or Navy Seal would've loved, Fremont High turned back Region 1 rival Syracuse 21-14 in a Veterans Day overtime thriller at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium.
With the dramatic victory, which ended with a bit of controversy over the final play of the game, the Silver Wolves advanced to the 5A championship game for the second straight year. Fremont (10-2), which fell to Bingham in last year's title tilt, will face Lone Peak in next Friday's 5A finals on the Rice-Eccles Stadium turf.
"That's what we talked about before the season started. We wanted to get back to the championship game, and now we have a chance," said Fremont senior running back Nick Vigil, who ran for 166 yards and two touchdowns against a rugged Syracuse defense, then threw a surprise TD pass for the winning score in overtime. "So we're going to try and make it happen.
"We'd like to get used to this. We've never had one (state championship) before, and I think if we got one at the school maybe we could start a pretty good tradition down there. It'd be big for us."
After the two teams slugged it out to a tense 14-14 standoff at the end of regulation, Fremont got the ball first in overtime. Vigil pounded away at the Titans' defense on four consecutive rushing plays that pushed Fremont to the 3-yard line.
Then, in a brilliant bit of trickery, Vigil took a pitchout from Cooper Kelley, then stepped up and hit sure-handed Rowdy Stucki for the go-ahead touchdown on a seldom-seen halfback pass play.
"We've practiced it a few times. but not much," Vigil said. "I didn't even know I was throwing it there until the quarterback said, 'You're throwing it.' That's the first time we've run it in a game.
"I didn't think we'd call that play there at the end of the game. That was pretty cool and a good play-call. … Sometimes you've got to step up and make a play."
And make a play — a gutty, clutch play — the Silver Wolves did.
"I thought, 'Uh, oh, that's me.' I had to make a play for our team," Stucki said. "Our offensive line blocked wonderful, and that gave Vigil enough time to throw it.
"That's the first time we've run it in a game. It was just a great play all-around — the line, the throw, everything."
Logan George's PAT kick was true to make it 21-14, but now it was the Silver Wolves' turn to try and stop the Titans.
Trevor Davis hooked up with Matt Dunston on an 18-yard pass play that put Syracuse 7 yards away from a potential tying touchdown. But two running plays netted virtually nothing, and then Davis was sacked by Fremont's Luke Hollingsworth back at the 14.
So, on a do-or-die fourth-and-goal play, Davis zipped a short pass to Shane Russell, who stretched his best to put the ball over the goal line as he was being dragged down by a Fremont defender. Russell got the ball into the end zone, but officials ruled his knee was down before he had scored.
Video replays on the scoreboard Jumbotron left Fremont fans cheering and Syracuse faithful booing what they thought was a bad call that cost them a chance to possibly win or at least keep playing.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking," Vigil said, "but they said his knee was down. We lucked out a little there. … That was pretty scary and it was pretty close, but it's up to the refs."
Syracuse coach Russ Jones certainly didn't see it that way.
"It takes a big man to admit they're wrong," Jones said bitterly, "and they wouldn't do it."
The Titans (8-4), who were a No. 4 seed before forging their way into the semifinals, drew first blood after Fremont's fake-punt attempt backfired deep in Silver Wolves territory on their second possession.
Taylor Carlson picked off a Fremont pass and returned it 20 yards for the Titans' first touchdown and a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Vigil capped a 77-yard drive by sailing into the end zone from a yard away to tie it at 7-up later in the first quarter, and that score stood up until halftime after the two teams traded second-quarter turnovers.
Then Stucki intercepted a Syracuse pass and returned it 24 yards to put Fremont in business late in the third quarter. Vigil and Kelley vaulted the Wolves downfield, and Vigil slammed into the end zone from 2 yards out for a 14-7 lead in the last minute of the third period.
The two teams traded punts until midway through the fourth quarter, when Austin Bolos' running and a pair of passes from Davis to Matt Dunston had the Titans knocking on the door for a game-tying touchdown. Davis found Kiwa Mo'o for a 7-yard scoring strike with 5:03 remaining in regulation that made it 14-14.
Vigil fumbled the ball away, then got it back with an interception deep in Fremont territory, while Syracuse's Cody Child recovered a couple of Fremont fumbles and the Titans' Alex Vanderloo had an interception in the final, frantic minutes of regulation.
That set the stage for the overtime heroics of Vigil, Stucki and the Fremont defense.
"It was exactly what we thought it would be — a hard-fought, physical football game," said Fremont coach Kory Bosgieter. "And that's what it was.
"We made some mistakes early there, and credit our kids for fighting through the adversity. Our guys stay the course pretty good. We've got such good kids; we're real lucky that way.
"You can't take anything away from either team," Bosgieter said. "That's a great effort by those Syracuse guys. Coach Jones and his staff had 'em ready to play, they always do. It was just a great football game."
"They're tough," Stucki said of Syracuse. "They hit hard, they played hard the whole game, and they fought through everything. They played a heck of a game."
Indeed, the same could be said of both these teams in this dandy Veterans Day duel filled with defense.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company