By Amy Donaldson and Mo Mqomboti

SALT LAKE CITY — It was a strategy that served them well last year.

So who can blame the Rams if they'd rather focus on the task at hand rather than deal with the expectations of defending the 4A state title?

"Some people look at it like more pressure, but we just go at it … just like last year," said senior quarterback Fish Smithson after Highland defeated West 44-14. "We never thought we was going to win a state championship. That was never our goal. We just go out every game and fight."

The first game of the season can be ugly, and while there were moments that made Rams' coaches cringe, they felt pleased with the overall effort in the win.

"I like our intensity," said head coach Brody Benson. "Most of our guys were flying around. We've got some guys we need to remind, but I think the biggest thing is letting them see themselves on film. When you're out there, you sometimes think, 'I'm moving' and then you watch yourself on film and you're standing there. We're going to work on it and we're going to get better."

Special teams was the biggest difference in the game. While the Panthers struggled on special teams, the Rams were excellent.

"Special teams picked it up a lot," said Smithson, who said a promise by the special team's coach to feed the team for each blocked kick may have helped motivate the younger players. "I think he got us fired up."

The Rams blocked three kicks, the first at 10:52 in the first quarter for a safety. The Panthers answered with an 80-yard touchdown run from senior running back Eric Takenaka.

The Rams answered immediately when Sione Houma returned the kick-off 95 yards for a touchdown.

Then just one minute later, sophomore Adam Webber picked up a fumble and returned it for six more points. Kicker (and wide receiver) Hayes Hicken was a perfect 7-for-7, providing the extra points after the touchdowns.

Smithson was involved in three touchdowns — a four-yard run and a one-yard run, and a 24 yard pass to junior Malcom Card-Turner. He left the game halfway through the third quarter, as did many of the Rams' starters.

He did throw an interception in the first quarter, which only deepened the frustration he felt due to the offense being the last unit to score for Highland.

"Actually, I was frustrated," he said smiling. "As a quarterback, I like to set the tone ... go out and play hard. The interception was all me. I tried to go for the big play, I skipped my read. My coaches try to calm me down, but I like to go for the big play every time."

Despite the mistakes, and Benson points out there were many, it was an invigorating way to start the season for the defending champs.

"Defensively I feel good," Benson said. "I feel like we have a lot to work on up front. Guys flying up (the field) and creating lanes is something we've got to work on as a defensive line. But overall, I think we flew to the ball, we had good attitudes and good intensity."

Houma finished with 112 yards on 16 carries, while Smithson was 4-for-16 for 60 yards passing. Hayes Hicken had two receptions for 71 yards as a receiver.

West head coach Justin Spencer said his team had a lot to work on, and special teams would be at the top of the list.

"They showed why they're state champions," said Spencer. "They exploited where we have weaknesses. Our special teams were terrible. If you take 23 points off the board, it's 21-14. I don't know if it stays that way, but they didn't have that weakness. We're going to go back to the drawing board…Try to keep our kids' heads up and try and learn from it and bounce back next week."