Story & photos by Kurt Johnson
One team makes a habit of playing in state championship games. The other has not been here in a long time.
When American Fork, which last visited this game and last won a title in 1962, and Bingham, which has won four titles since 2006 including last season, get together at 2:30 p.m. it will be a contrast in histories and in styles.
Both teams come to Rice-Eccles Stadium with stout defenses. Bingham’s is the more heralded unit, but the Cavemen have displayed strength on that side of the ball as well. Perhaps most telling in that regard was American Fork’s utter domination of the high-flying Jordan offense and its quarterback Austin Kafentzis in the quarterfinal round.
Despite their lack of postseason experience, the Cavemen come into this game with a high level of confidence, and they are excited at the chance to face off with the defending state champions.
“I think it’s definitely a source of excitement (playing Bingham),” said American Fork head coach Aaron Behm. “To be the best team in the state, you’ve got to beat the best team in the state. They have been the best team so that’s exactly who our guys want to play in this game.
“I think they’re starting to sense their true potential and what they can accomplish when they fulfill that potential. It’s been really fun and we’re on a pretty good wave of momentum right now and they’re a very confident group.”
One source of that confidence comes from his defense’s propensity to force turnovers. which lead to better chances for the offense to put points on the board.
“So far, to this point in the playoffs, turnovers have been huge,” Behm said. “The defense has given us a short field multiple times, the defense has put points up on the board and really allowed us to capture momentum. I know we intercepted Brighton on their second play and I think we intercepted Jordan on their first drive. Their ability to create momentum, to score points, to give us a short field has been huge.”
If the Cavemen can force a turnover or two against the Miners, it could go a long way in helping American Fork get that long-awaited state championship. The Cavemen will try to capitalize on the presence of the Bingham back-up quarterback Ben Boelter, who was outstanding in relief last week. Now, he comes into a game knowing he will be the man under center after the season-ending elbow injury suffered by Kyle Gearig.
“Sometimes when they just get thrown in there, they don’t have time to worry about things and just go in and play, but they also never really had the chance to be the guy in practice and work on things,” said Bingham head coach Dave Peck. “Game-plan wise, this week with our offensive coaches, it’s definitely a different game plan than if Kyle was there. Ben throws a great ball, always has, but isn’t nearly as athletic. He isn’t a guy who’s going to take it 60 yards for a touchdown on any given play.”
Injuries are nothing new for the Miners, who lost Gearig just before halftime in last year’s state title game. They have now lost four offensive starters to injury this season, but they really have the depth to keep on rolling.
“That’s kind of been the M.O. of Bingham football for a few years,” Peck said. “If somebody goes down, we don’t make a big deal about it, we just continue to do what we do and hopefully it’s enough to get us through. We’ve lost four offensive starters this year. That’s huge and yet, we feel like our offense is ready to roll. We haven’t lost one defensive starter from the beginning of the year and we think our defense is pretty darn good. We’ve only given up nine points in three playoff games.”
Defense also is the M.O. of the Miner team. Peck believes his defense’s ability to cut keep American Fork away from its characteristic big plays.
“I would say it will depend on whether they can get some of their big plays,” Peck said in discussing what might be decisive in the matchup. “They’ve had a lot of big plays, and our defense rarely gives up big plays. If they are able to get some of those big plays, they have a pretty good chance. If they struggle in some of their base stuff, I think they might struggle.”
Behm, on the other hand, believes the contest may come down to what each team is able to do when big plays are not available.
“We want to stop the run when we’re on defense, and we want to run the ball and piece drives together that move us down the field and put points on the scoreboard,” Behm said. “If we’re able to put drives together and slow down their run, we feel like we’ll be in good shape.
“I think the team that’s able to move the ball the length of the field, if you get the ball on the 20 and you’re able to drive it all the way down the field and punch it in. The team that does that will win the game. We know they’ve got a kicker that boots it out of the end zone every time and through the uprights, so we know we’ve got a long field to work with. We know our defense is tough and if we can put a long field behind our defense that we’ll be in good shape.”
One thing that has been key all year, and for years, when it comes to Bingham is the Miners’ ability to platoon players between offense and defense. Peck is confident that it gives his team an advantage against a team like the Cavemen that has players who go both ways.
“They really swarm to the ball,” Peck said in describing the American Fork defense. “When you watch them, they play a lot like we do. They use timely blitzes and then at times they’ll drop in coverage. They do a good job mixing it up. The really play with a lot of energy.
“One of our mottos is ‘never out-hustled, never outhit,’ and we are very seldom outplayed in those areas. American Fork brings a lot of that same attitude. They have those six or seven guys that go both ways and a big question will be if they can go at that level for 48 minutes against us.
“Their skill kids are really good, they have good big kids up front, but they have six or seven kids that rarely come off the field. The way we play it, when teams do that it typically wears on them and that’s what we’re counting on here.”