BOUNTIFUL — Highland coach Brody Benson had preached all week about the importance of special teams. The Rams had been topsy-turvy offensively throughout the season, and with playoff seeding up for grabs against Bountiful Friday night, they needed help finding points.
Tied 10-10 with 5:26 remaining in the fourth quarter, Bountiful lined up to punt, pinned deep in its own territory.
It was the moment Highland had prepared for.
Bringing a landslide of blitzes on the left side, Alassane Niang broke free and deflected the kick. Adam Webber then instinctively scooped the bounce and returned it 10 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the Rams' 17-10 win.
“Tight games — it’s going to come down a play on special teams or a big mistake,” Benson said. “Fortunately for us, we didn’t make a big mistake and got a huge play. I’m so proud of our boys. It’s kind of been an up-and-down year, but I’m really proud of the way they battled tonight.”
With the win, Highland (7-2, 4-2) earned the No. 3 seed from Region 6 and will travel to Sky View in the first round. Bountiful, the No. 4 seed, hits the road to take on undefeated Logan (10-0).
“We’ve got our work cut out,” explained Benson, who said he hadn't yet seen film of the Bobcats. “We’re going to start tonight to get ready. We got to go up there, and we usually travel well. We’ll jump on a bus and see what we can do.”
For Bountiful (5-5, 3-3) it was a defeat of missed opportunities. The Braves watched two quality-looking long-distance field goals sail wide and two sure-handed pick-6 chances fall to the grass. And several dropped passes and wide-open receivers missed across the middle spoiled promising drives.
With the assistance of a targeting penalty, the Braves were in position to pull even on their final drive. It was Highland’s 15th penalty for 125 yards, compared to its 252 yards of total offense on 50 plays.
But the Rams held tight. On fourth-and-15 from the Highland 40-yard line, Bountiful quarterback Trevor Lloyd lofted a fade to Tanner Redding down the sideline, but Niang trekked the length of the field and stuck a grenade in any hopes of a comeback.
“That’s just our defense as a whole,” Niang said after filling in for Calvin Keyes, who was injured the play before. “Justus Jones breaking it up; our line getting to the quarterback — that’s just what Highland does. That’s the way we do.”
Lloyd finished 13 of 28 for 121 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown pass to Redding, which put the Braves up 10-7 in the third quarter. Redding led all receivers with seven catches for 116 yards.
Highland responded with a 13-play march on its ensuing drive to knot the score at 10-10 with 7:07 left in the fourth. Newly substituted tailback Stanley Sitani carried the rock eight straight times for 77 yards to the 1-yard line.
“We always talk about what do you do with an opportunity,” Benson said. “Stanley has been in and out at the position and Vili (Sekona) had kind of been walking away with it. Stanley stepped up huge and went out and fought his (butt) off for his teammates.”
With first-and-goal from the 1, the Rams stuttered with a false start and two straight tackles by Bountiful's Taylor Gulbransen, which led to Mike Kerr’s 24-yard field goal.
Alassane Niang talks about the win
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @phibbs_
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company