SALT LAKE CITY — East’s offense in the first half of Friday’s 6A semifinal game between the Leopards and Lone Peak at Rice-Eccles Stadium looked nothing like the East offense that had put up 42.9 points per game entering the contest.
The Leopards’ offense had gained only 80 yards of total offense in the first half and finished the afternoon with 227 yards of offense. East was outgained by Lone Peak in offensive yardage, 355 to 227, but save for one touchdown in the second quarter — on a coverage breakdown — and one touchdown in garbage time, the Leopard defense was rock-solid and kept East in the game. The Leopards would go on to defeat Lone Peak, 28-13, and advance to their third straight state championship game.
“We played really, really well on the defensive side of the football,” East head coach Brandon Matich said. “Defense wins championships. Not to give you a cliché, they kept us in the game, they were the biggest deal for us today.”
Matich says that his defense made two mistakes during the game, which led to the Lone Peak touchdown in the second quarter, and that his Leopards will have to clean up those mistakes.
“They (Lone Peak) scored their touchdown, the second one was a gimme — we had a bunch of young kids in— they scored their touchdown on two big mistakes. If we wouldn’t have made those two mistakes, they wouldn’t have scored. That was on us,” Matich said. “Lone Peak is a very, very good team, they’re athletic, they’re well-coached. My hat’s off to them for the success they’ve had. That’s a big-time program for our guys to beat, but at the end of the day, we can’t beat ourselves and make those types of mistakes in the secondary.”
Viliami Tausinga led the Leopards with eight tackles and two sacks, while Mekelee Gautavai, Jaylon Vickers and Nicolas Harris turned in seven tackles each. Defensive back Christian Nash had an interception and four tackles in East’s win.
“It helped a lot. We got some big stops when we needed them. They had a couple of big plays, but we knew that going into the game. We just had to lock down and move onto the next play after they made a big play,” Vickers said.
East made big stops on fourth down throughout Thursday’s contest. Lone Peak went for it on fourth down seven times, only converting one of those opportunities. One of the Leopards’ biggest stops came when Lone Peak, tied with East 7-7, was in the red zone, threatening to score. The East defense held strong and came up with a big sack to force the Knights to punt.
“Huge momentum swing. This game is a game of momentum swings. If they score, and that momentum goes to them, things could be a lot different. Because we got that big stop, that’s a huge, huge, defensive stop for us. It allows our offense to kind of start getting into a rhythm, potentially, and move down the field and score. We were counting on our defense to get us into some semblance of a rhythm because we weren’t creating on offense on our own,” Matich said.