After nine months of waiting, the high school football season begins tonight. A full slate of games are on deck in nearly every corner of the state.
Only one question remains: which high school football games are the ones you should pay attention to?
Never fear. Every Friday at 7 a.m., I'll post the seven best high school football games that start at 7 that night. It’ll include commentary from the coaches and analysis of the specific matchup.
These are the seven games at 7 p.m. that you should know about.
Be sure to join the conversation either via Twitter by following me @TPhibbsDNews or by using the hashtag #DNPreps. Also, if you haven't done it yet, make sure you register for the Deseret News high school football grid picks contest.
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Parry’s Power Guide Advantage: Brighton 8.4 points
Deseret News Prep Editor James Edward’s Selection: Brighton
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Last season was quite a yawner when these two met. Brighton built a 27-0 lead until American Fork chipped in a useless touchdown late in the fourth quarter. This season, the Cavemen are expected to be much improved after starting several underclassmen in 2012, making this a clash of top 25 teams.
“They’ve got a lot of returning starters,” Brighton coach Ryan Bullet said. “They were pretty athletic last year and it was all their young kids (playing). I think we’ll have our hands full.”
Bullet said American Fork may have actually outshined his team during 7-on-7 competition in the offseason.
“I think we’ve got to keep their skill kids in check,” Bullet said. “We played them in Ute Shoot, and they were really good. We’ve got to slow the game down, hold onto the football and keep the ball in front of us on defense.”
Not to say that the Bengals aren’t equipped with weapons at the skill positions — i.e. Osa Masina and Isaiah Kaufusi — but the strength of the program resides within the trenches. Three-year starters Jackson Barton, Tyson Aldridge and Nick Giles headline one of the more talented groups in the state.
“We’re going to do what we do. Obviously our first thing is to run the ball and make them load the box up,” Bullet said. “This year we do have three quality receivers, which we haven’t had in awhile. If teams want to load the box up — we can throw this year. I feel it’s probably the best passing attack we’ve had since ’05.”
The Bengals check in at No. 10 on the Deseret News preseason state poll, but anything can change when another team takes the field.
“I don’t know what we have. We’re going to find out. I think we’re pretty good; as good as we’ve had here for a while,” Bullet said. “But, (we’re) playing a team with a lot of talent and athletic ability, and you just want to see how your kids will respond. We’re expecting a tough game. I’m glad we have it at home — we usually play a little better.”
KEY: How will American Fork compete in the interior? The Cavemen are outmatched up front in nearly every capacity, but if the defensive linemen can challenge Brighton’s front five enough to prevent them from picking up ’backers in the second level, it’ll still be a winnable game in the fourth quarter. Actually doing that is the challenge.
Parry’s Power Guide Advantage: Syracuse 26.8 points
Deseret News Prep Editor James Edward’s Selection: Syracuse
BRIGHAM CITY — Box Elder was a peculiar team in 2012. It finished 7-5, but in four of its losses it had a possibility to secure a win in the fourth quarter against teams that advanced to the semifinals or further and Logan.
The only game that was seemingly out of reach was its 31-14 setback against Syracuse at Weber State. Now, with several returning starters and the location moving to their home stadium, the Bees are in a much different situation this time around.
“It’ll be nice if that helped out a little bit — they’re a pretty good football team, so we need every little bit we can get,” Box Elder coach Robbie Gunter said of the home-field advantage. “It’s a great way to start the year; going against a great team. It’s an opportunity for our guys to see where they’re at and measure ourselves that way.”
Syracuse begins the 2013 campaign ranked No. 3 in the state for numerous reasons, but specifically because of the abundance of returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, the Titans are relatively unchallenged, but as Gunter explained, they certainly aren't in short supply of talent.
“They’re powerful up front, and they’ve got some great skills guys. They’ve got a great scheme,” Gunter said. “They don’t put themselves in bad-down situations. It seems like they’re always playing ahead — getting four or five yards on first down. They’re always third-and-short. I think a big key is trying to get them into those long-down situations that change things up.”
Box Elder prefers to play clock management already, but as obvious underdogs it’ll have to milk drives further and leave the game in the defense’s ability to get stops.
“I want to see them compete. It’s putting all this time in the weight room and out on the field,” Gunter said. “Well now it’s Friday night and I want to see them go out and compete and see how they do when adversity strikes and when things aren’t going exactly the way they’re supposed to.”
KEY: Box Elder deepened its depth chart with experience, but Syracuse is one of the top teams in the state. In order for the Bees to pull off the upset, they’ll have to force a few turnovers and execute on special teams. An interception there or a solid punt return here and suddenly the crowd is jumping. Then anything can happen.
Parry’s Power Guide Advantage: Pleasant Grove 3 points
Deseret News Prep Editor James Edward’s Selection: Pleasant Grove
PLEASANT GROVE — Taking both teams' affinity for the passing game into account, the expected finish time is roughly the crack of midnight.
Orem and Pleasant Grove both advertise potent offensive arsenals, but Tigers coach Tyler Anderson explained that avoiding exchanging score for score is preferable.
“We may at times have to slow it down a little depending on what the situation is. Defensively, we can’t give up big plays,” Anderson said. “If we can make them have to drive the length of the field, it’s going to be a lot better for us than giving up big plays. It’s going to be a definite test for our team.”
That doesn’t mean Orem is about to line up in I-back and wishbone formations, however.
“I’m going to play it by ear, but there may be times when we try and slow the tempo down a little bit maybe to give our defense a break,” Anderson explained. “We obviously want to score a lot of points. We’re not necessarily going to huddle, but just slow down the tempo a little bit.”
Despite the Vikings’ ability to move down the field in a hurry, Anderson expects to play aggressively on defense in an attempt to combat the size differential.
“I think one of our goals defensively is we’re going to try and pressure the quarterback as much as we can,” Anderson said. “Obviously I know they’ve got a big offensive line, so we’re going to try and use some of our speed guys to rush and do some blitzes and try and make them not just block the same guy every time, but make them think about who’s coming.”
KEY: Pleasant Grove is bigger and stronger at the majority of the linemen positions. Orem cannot allow the Vikings to score in a multitude of ways or it risks coughing up huge chunks of yardage. Both teams are expected to compete deep into the postseason, and the game will serve as an indicator of exactly how accurate those projections really are. In such an evenly matched game, it truly dwindles down to execution.
Parry’s Power Guide Advantage: Lone Peak 6.7 points
Deseret News Prep Editor James Edward’s Selection: Lone Peak
HIGHLAND — For the 12th consecutive season, Bountiful and Lone Peak meet in the endowment game. It’s continued to be one of the hardest games to predict with both teams rotating between wins.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we play this game. I think it’s been a competitive series,” Bountiful coach Larry Wall said. “We always want to play the very best teams we can play and first-class programs, and I think that’s what you get when you play Lone Peak. They’re always going to be in that upper echelon, have great athletes and be well-coached.”
Despite the familiarity, preparing for an opening week game of this magnitude doesn’t come without unanswered questions until Friday night finally arrives.
“That’s the tricky thing about these first games. You get into the second and third and you’ve got some film and look at personnel,” Wall said. “Going into this first game you really don’t know what you’ve got. I think as a coach you’ve got to be prepared for a number of different things. Another added wrinkle this year is they have a new coach — you don’t know how much they’re going to change.”
Bountiful advertises one of the strongest defensive backfields in the state, and Lone Peak’s offense is furnished with every bell and whistle imaginable. The Braves' first priority needs to be containing Knights quarterback Baron Gajkowski in the open field.
“I wish it was that easy. I think why he’s so good is he has the ability to do both. He can tuck it and run and beat you with his legs, and if you’re not going to honor (the pass) he’ll definitely be able to throw the football,” Wall explained. “That’s what makes those guys so dangerous. It really stretches you out as a defense. If he was a big, slow guy that couldn’t move, it would make it a lot easier.”
KEY: Bountiful needs to keep Gajkowski within the pocket and win or lose off of his ability to orchestrate the offense with his arm. If he’s able to move the chains with his feet, the offense is nearly impossible to get off the field. Defensively, Lone Peak needs to frustrate the Braves’ new pistol offense from the onset to potentially deflect the attention away from the trio of receivers expecting higher targets this season.
Parry’s Power Guide Advantage: Logan 14.8 points
Deseret News Prep Editor James Edward’s Selection: Logan
LAYTON — Logan coach Mike Favero doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the statistical formula Noland Parry computes for point spreads across the state.
“That’s absolutely crazy. I hope we can stay in the game,” Favero said after being informed that his Grizzlies are 15-point favorites. “Parry’s Power Guide didn’t see Dayan Lake and realize that (quarterback Nate) Kusuda is a three-year starter and they’ve got a 6-4 tight end and return three or four of their best defensive players. I don’t know who Parry is, but he seems a little confused on this one.
“I think Logan's high ranking is based on past tradition and success rather than this team,” Favero continued. “We have one returning receiver, brand new quarterback and two returning O-line on the offense, and everybody else will get their first varsity snap. To suggest that we’re better than Northridge seems almost ludicrous. I think they’re probably better this year than they were last year, and they whipped us.”
Favero’s modesty can easily be attributed as coach talk. Logan has several weapons on the outskirts with Taylor Compton — who set the state record with 107 receptions as a junior — and speedster Chad Artist. Add Colorado commit Sam Bennion along with Logan Rice and Jaden Connor and the Grizzlies have all the pieces to warrant the ranking.
However, Favero’s assessment of Northridge happens to be correct. The Knights have an ability to travel by air and sea with Kusuda at the helm and Lake, a BYU commit, ready to rumble in the backfield. Each played in the 41-27 win that snapped the Grizzlies’ 14-game win streak in 2012.
KEY: Both defensive backfields better be prepared for a barrage of passes. Kusuda threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s matchup, and Logan doesn’t make any qualms about throwing the leather off the ball. The secondary that avoids the fewest blown coverages will prove the difference.
Parry’s Power Guide Advantage: Desert Hills 13.6 points
Deseret News Prep Editor James Edward’s Selection: Stansbury
ST. GEORGE — The first week is never a season-defining moment. However, it can serve a barometer to measure the progress from the offseason against opponents with similar aspirations. For Stansbury and Desert Hills, it’s an opportunity to display their talent, which generated potentially the greatest preseason hype either school has experienced.
“Both teams are very physical,” Thunder coach Carl Franke said, “so I think the team that comes out and controls the line of scrimmage both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball will have a better chance to dictate the game and have a chance to win. In the trenches is where it’s going to be won.”
The Stallions trekked through a defensive battle in their 12-7 win against Desert Hills at home in 2012. Once again, the five-hour commute will factor in, but this time the scorching climate adds another layer of adjustment.
“Travel with teenagers is always a question mark on what you’re going to get when you get off the bus,” Franke explained. “Last year we were very flat, and offensively we didn’t play well. There’s a lot of factors going into it. It’s a big game; there’s a lot of anticipation; there’s obviously going to be first game jitters — kids’ first time playing varsity.
“It’s going to be 100 degrees at game time and probably 120 on the field, so hydration is going to come into play,” Franke continued. “I’m sure (Stansbury) has been practicing in the middle of the day to get that (similar) heat. It’s one thing — even our kids — you can’t get ready for; sometimes it’s too overwhelming.”
KEY: Both teams primarily focus on the run game. Stansbury relies heavily on quarterback Chase Christiansen, and Desert Hills feeds running back Bridger Cowdin repeatedly. Therefore, with both defenses stacking the box, the outcome likely hangs in the balance with the team that establishes a threat in the passing game.
Game of the Week
Parry’s Power Guide Advantage: Alta 4.8 points
Deseret News Prep Editor James Edward’s Selection: Alta
SALT LAKE CITY — What is this game missing? In terms of cinema screenplay it’s the typical good vs. evil script. It’s 5A vs. 4A. It’s differing demographics and communities. It’s the triple-option vs. the up-tempo spread. It’s black vs. red. And in terms of coaching, it’s Utah (East’s Brandon Matich) vs. BYU (Alta’s Bob Stephens).
The teams couldn’t be further apart. Yet, Alta and East share something very much in common: a state championship caliber roster.
Typically, in highly touted opening week matchups, teams that are able to avoid costly turnovers — especially early — and mental mistakes down the stretch earn the tally in the win column.
“A game like that early on with two really good teams, it’s the team that makes the fewest mistakes that’s going to win that football game,” Matich said. “We’ve got to be able to execute and not turn the ball over or (Alta quarterback) Chipper (Lucero) will kill us.”
Lucero threw for 3,414 yards and 37 touchdowns with 13 interceptions as a junior, and at practice Wednesday he displayed the confident swagger of a year of experience. He worked well at distributing the ball to receivers Mack Richards and Logan Harrison along with Nate Teahan — a goosebump-quick option at slot — and junior Tejon Reeves.
“I’ve coached against a lot of quarterbacks that are really good,” Matich said while noting that East put in “a bunch of new coverages” in the offseason to combat the threat. “The best I’ve ever coached against was Riley Nelson from Logan; I thought he was a spectacular high school athlete. I think Chipper is right there — he’s so good.”
Although the offense appeared well oiled on the last practice before Friday, Stephens understands that replicating game situations completely is impossible.
“First game — comfort? I don’t know if there’s such a thing,” he explained. “I feel good about our game plan both offensively and defensively, but I don’t think anyone feels comfortable. I think the team that comes out and makes the fewest mistakes, because both teams I’m sure will make mistakes, but the team that does the least amount of that will get the win.”
East certainly has firepower on offense, too. Quarterback Isaac Valles, similar to Lucero, has experienced a smoother offseason after starting as a junior. He’s surrounded by Ula Tolutau, Preston Curtis, Malakai Solovi and a physically imposing offensive line.
“It’s going to take the guys up front and everybody together to stop their pounding run game,” Stephens said.
KEY: Both offenses are ahead of their defensive counterparts right now, which is highly unusual. Can East's lethal pass rushers frustrate Lucero into forcing throws? Can Alta's defensive front provide the surge to mitigate the downhill rushing attack? The game could very well boil down to the team that gets one or two stops or the team that separates early. It’s incredibly difficult to play catchup and shake off rust simultaneously.