For us to come out and our defense and secondary to play like that ... every time we have asked them to get a stop, they got a stop. —Orem coach Jeremy Hills
OREM — Puka Nacua hates getting hit and he rarely was in Friday's 37-17 win by Nacua's Orem Tigers over the Desert Hills Thunder at Tigers Stadium.
"That's really it, I don't like getting hit," said Nacua, who had seven catches for 248 yards and four touchdowns in the Tigers' win. "I have big brothers and they were always beating on me, so I had to learn to be fast. I don't like to get beat on."
Nacua had touchdowns of 96, 93, 14 and 3 yards in Orem's win. The first of his TDs came late in the first quarter. With Desert Hills ahead 3-0, the Tigers faced a third-and-20 at their own 4-yard line. Quarterback Cooper Legas noticed man coverage on his star receiver and lofted a jump ball toward Nacua at midfield.
Nacua ripped the ball away from the Desert Hills receiver, wriggled out of his tackle attempt and raced the remaining yards for the go-ahead score.
"I knew I could still get it to him and I can always throw him the ball," Legas said. "When I throw it his way, I know he will go and get it. And if he ever has the ball, you know there is a chance he can score. He is always making plays."
The score remained 6-3 until late in the second quarter. Desert Hills, led by speedy running back Brock Parry, marched the ball inside the Orem 10-yard line. Looking to take the lead, D-Hills eschewed the field goal and went for it on fourth-and-2 at the 9-yard line.
Physical quarterback Noah Sewell took the snap and plowed into the line. After the scrum was unpiled, the referees marked the ball between the 7- and 8-yard line. Out came the chains ... and the measurement showed the Thunder were inches short of a first down.
The Tigers took over with 4:09 left in the half holding that 6-3 lead. Nacua caught three passes on what turned out to be a 10-play, 92-yard drive that changed the game. The last play of the drive was a flawless slant pass from Legas to Nacua from 14 yards away with 47 seconds left in the half, making it 14-3 following a two-point conversion, also from Nacua.
"That was pivotal for us, and you know had they gone in and scored and taken all that momentum back, I don’t know how the game turns out," Orem coach Jeremy Hills said. "For us to come out and our defense and secondary to play like that ... every time we have asked them to get a stop, they got a stop."
With all the momentum, the Tigers came out of intermission on fire. And Nacua had the box of matches.
Desert Hills kicked off to the 10-yard line and Nacua picked up the ball and sprinted to his left. With his path blocked, the junior reversed his field, juked a defender and then found a crease. He bolted for the right sideline and it became a footrace.
Nacua usually wins those. His only foe was fatigue and he finally ran out of gas inside the 5-yard line as the Thunder were able to knock him out of bounds.
However, Orem scored two plays later as Legas hit Enoch Fiso from the 8 and, just like that, it was 21-3.
"We kind of knew coming into the game what their offensive tactic was going to be and we felt like if we got up two or three scores early it was going to force them to come out of their running game," Hill said. "That's a good team with a strong quarterback. We were tested in this one."
Desert Hills, behind a scintillating 36-yard run by Sewell, threatened again on its next possession. The Thunder moved it to the Orem 5, but a fumble on a handoff gave the ball back to the Tigers with 8:36 to go in the third.
It was the fourth trip into the red zone for Desert Hills, but the Thunder still had just three points.
To make matters worse for the Thunder, Orem was about to dial up Nacua again. This time, Legas hit him on a short crossing pattern and Nacua the shifty receiver juked a pair of defenders, then got up the left sideline. This time, the footrace was no contest as Nacua raced unmolested 93 yards for a TD. That made it 27-3 with just over eight minutes left in the third.
Another D-Hills miscue, this time a blocked punt, led to a short TD by Orem running back Peter Kanese, making it 34-3 with 4:45 to go in the third quarter and the rout was on.
Desert Hills got a TD pass on a trick play when wide receiver Bo Barben hit Sewell for a 26-yard score to make it 34-10 and the Thunder also added a 61-yard run from Parry, following a Tiger field goal, to make it 37-17.
"Our defense killed it this game," Legas said. "It’s a lot easier for an offense when there is no pressure to score. We just relax and do what we can and we don’t have to worry so much about scoring."
Legas ended up passing for 280 yards and five touchdowns, though he had just eight rushing yards.
The win moves Orem to 10-2 and earns them a berth in the 4A semifinals with a game vs. Sky View Thursday at 6 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Desert Hills, which tied for second in Region 9, ends its season with a 6-5 record. Parry rushed for 181 yards on 16 carries to lead DHHS.
Andy Griffin is a southern Utah broadcaster and sports writer and has been involved in covering sports in Utah, including professional, college and high school sports, since 1989. Andy is the sports editor at STGNews.com.