WEST VALLEY CITY — The Hunter Wolverines are in the driver's seat for the Region 2 championship, but they had to crawl from the backseat against Kearns to get there. Hunter erased a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter Friday night to defeat the Cougars, 21-20.
"We knew that they were big and we'd eventually wear them down," Hunter coach Scott Henderson said. "Our kids just stepped up. We challenged the kids at halftime and told them they needed to come out and play."
The Wolverines opened the game with an 80-yard drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock, aided by pass interference and personal foul penalties against Kearns. Receiver Mitch McKnight took an end-around sweep into the end zone from nine yards out, and Nick Hafen's extra points staked the Wolverines a 7-0 lead.
They wouldn't sniff the end zone again until the fourth quarter. The Kearns offensive and defensive lines took control of the game's middle quarters, helping running back James Felila rack up 174 yards and two touchdowns. A blocked extra point and failed PAT run kept their lead to just 12-7.
Meanwhile, the Hunter offense was spinning their offensive wheels thanks to the Cougars defense clogging running lanes and pressuring quarterback Shaun Scanlan. Their most successful drive ended on the Kearns 37, when Trevon Johnson fumbled the ball away on a long gain.
Kearns drove the score to 20-7 on their first drive of the third quarter. A 19-yard connection from quarterback Jordan Floyd to tight end Colton Grossaint set up a 23-yard gain from Felila, who took the ball to the Hunter 1. Floyd would punch it in on a sneak, then complete a pass to Hetu Mataele for the two-point conversion.
Later in the third, Hunter would finally begin to wear down the Kearns defense. Running back Izaiha Paonga-Lei would pound the ball into the middle for 4 or 5 yards at a time, then McKnight would sweep the ball to the outside. The offense would quickly rush to the ball without huddling, giving the Cougars defense little time to regain their traction.
"We just ran hard and my line blocked for me," McKnight said. "It feels good to be 3-0 and on our way to the region championship."
As the fourth quarter began though, Hunter had stalled on the Kearns goal line. A false start pushed them back to the nine, where they faced a fourth down. Instead of kicking a field goal, Wolverines quarterback Scanlan rolled right, where he found Noah Togiai camped out behind the defense for the touchdown.
With the margin cut to 20-14 and eleven minutes remaining, Hunter roared back to life on defense. After stuffing Felila twice, Sione Lapuaho sacked Floyd to force a punt on fourth-and-long. The offense picked right back up with the Paonga-Lei and McKnight combo, and a timely third-down completion to Jagger Wall to sustain the threat. Paonga-Lei swept into the end zone for a 21-20 lead with six minutes left. Kaleo Laita would intercept a Floyd pass, and the Wolverines were able to run out the remaining four minutes.
The win places Hunter (5-2, 3-0) atop Region 2 while Kearns (3-5, 2-1) sustains its first loss in the region.