SALT LAKE CITY — Football coaches aren't just fond of the idea that players must embrace a 'next man up' philosophy.
It is, quite literally, what the best teams find a way to do, even when the player lost to injury is the crown jewel of a team's offense. That is the position the East Leopards were in when senior running back Sione Molisi suffered a knee injury in the last game of the regular season.
"I think we all felt a little more pressure after," said junior running back Charlie Vincent after helping East to a 28-13 semifinal win over Lone Peak Friday morning. "He's a great player. He's one of the best running backs I've ever seen."
Head coach Brandon Matich admitted the Leopards leaned on him because they could.
"He's a special player," Matich said. "But this is a team game. One of the other guys had to step up. And they did."
Coaches huddled to discuss how to fill the gaping hole Molise's absence would leave in their offense, and they came up with a list of athletes – some of whom hadn't taken any reps at running back. Molisi has rushed for more than 1,700 yards, and even missing the three games, he's still one of 6A's top rushers.
"We have guys," he said. "We just needed to give them a chance. We repped those guys hard at multiple spots."
A couple showed themselves to be more than capable, including Vincent, who was already sharing some of the workload with Molisi. The junior has the second-most rushing touchdowns on the team, behind Molise, with 13, and he added to that total on Friday. Vincent scored two touchdowns, including one 43-yard running score in the third quarter that gave the Leopards 21-7 lead.
But it was junior Tutu Spann who surprised his teammates with his abilities. He had just one touchdown before Molisi's injury, and he scored his fifth of the season when he rumbled 39 yards to put East on the scoreboard first in the semifinal game at Rice-Eccles.
"Tutu Span and Lame Feletoa," Jaylon Vickers said of the two who surprised him most as they rushed for more than 700 yards in three games without Molise, including the Lone Peak win.
"(Molisi) is a great player, and he works so hard at what he does," said Vickers. "To see him go down was heartbreaking for all of us."
Vickers was part of the play that turned the game in East's favor as the Leopards made some adjustments that broke open a game that was knotted at 7-7 at halftime.
"We told our defense that it was going to be on their shoulders," Matich said. "And they showed up. We played really, really well on the defensive side of the ball."
Christian Nash had four pass breakups and an interception. East had two turnovers: A fumble when Molisi, who was just cleared to play Friday and hadn't practiced, entered the game for a series, lost the ball. Nate Ritchie also grabbed an interception for Lone Peak. East had two other fumbles, but didn't lose possession of the ball.
The Knights, however, couldn't capitalize on that interception, punting the ball after three plays were stymied by the Leopard defense.
"Defense wins championships," Matich said, apologizing for the cliché. "They kept us in the game. That was the biggest thing for us."
Matich said they changed some blocking assignments on the offensive line and they took advantage of their edge on the perimeter. "We put a couple of wrinkles in, in terms of the passing game," he said. "We knew if we could get the ball off and make a catch (on the edge), we knew we'd have a chance to run." That pass, almost parallel to the line of scrimmage, was caught by Vickers in the first series of the third quarter, and he ran 56 yards for a touchdown that broke the tie (14-7).
Matich said the first half was a struggle to adjust to exactly what Lone Peak was playing on Friday.
"We prepare for what we see every week," he said. "And never once have we showed up to a game, outside of Bingham, knowing exactly what we were going to get. Once we get into the flow of a game, we always figure out what teams are trying to do to us, and they always do something different. It takes a minute to get into the flow, and that's what happened."
He acknowledged a couple of costly mistakes in the secondary in the first half that allowed Lone Peak to score. But the Knights also blew a couple of opportunities inside the red zone as East's defense came up big.
"We've worked hard at ball possession and not (having) turnovers," Matich said. "It's been a real bad thing for us. We've gotten gradually better each week. I think we're in a good position."
Vincent credited the offensive line for helping establish a rhythm offensively in the second half.
"The o-line stepped it up," Vincent said, "and we started rolling."