By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
A year ago at this time, the Bingham High football team was on the road in Las Vegas facing the No. 1-ranked high school team in the country, Bishop Gorman. A 47-yard field goal by Chayden Johnston at the end of regulation time forced that game into overtime before the Gaels forced a turnover that allowed them to escape with a 23-20 overtime victory.
It’s 364 days later and a few things have changed in both of these football programs, but some things remain the same as the Miners prepare for the rematch. Once again, Bishop Gorman is the No. 1- ranked team in the country by most of the services who do such things, while Bingham’s ranking is all over the map, depending on who you ask. Most polls have the Miners outside the national Top 25, but they are No. 7 in the USA Today rankings.
Friday night provides one more chance for Bingham to prove itself against an elite program, and the Miners relish the opportunity to bring this national powerhouse to their house.
“I think it’s just a little bit more intriguing for our fans, and for Utah football fans as a whole to have somebody come in so they can see them in person,” said Bingham head coach John Lambourne. “It’s one thing to watch a game on television as opposed to seeing them up close and personal. We had Valor Christian (Colorado) come in here, and they were ranked real high and we had a nice game against them and won that one in overtime. Then, we had Bonneville from Pocatello come in. That was an ESPN game and that was a lot of fun and generated some interest. I would guess that this is the most highly ranked football team to come to Utah. You can’t get any higher than what Bishop Gorman is now.”
After facing the Gaels at their place last season, Lambourne is excited at the opportunity to play them on the Miners’ home turf.
“We’re in familiar surroundings. It’s got to be a little bit of an advantage,” Lambourne said. “Last year we were going down there hearing all kinds of things about their facilities and all that. Maybe we were in awe a little bit of especially the facilities. Then we settled in and it was just another game and I’m sure they’ll do the same thing.”
Bingham has made a name for itself and done some great public relations work for football in the state of Utah over the past few years, and there has been some winning along the way, but a number of the results have been close losses, and that is what the Miners are looking to change this week.
Last year, the loss at Bishop Gorman, coupled with the overtime loss to Booker T. Washington at the bowl game that closed out the season in December, proved that Bingham belongs on the national stage. Friday is a chance to take one more step forward.
“We played Euliss Trinity (Texas) and got handled pretty good a few years ago,” Lambourne said in an interview earlier this year. “We’d already beaten Kahuku out of Hawaii. Then we went and played Orange Lutheran in Southern California, and they handled us pretty good. Then we had those two games against Valor Christian, but I think in people’s minds there was still a question, ‘Are these guys really that kind of team?’
“Now, to have played two teams that, at times in the last few years, have been ranked No. 1 and to play them to overtime, even though we blew it. Now, we know we can be for real. I thought it catapulted our perception even of ourselves. I think it’s also helping our individuals to know they can play with anybody when and if they get opportunities on the next level.”
Lambourne was not the head coach a year ago, but when Dave Peck retired after last season, the Miners kept things in-house by hiring the man who had been at Peck’s side for 15 amazing seasons of Bingham football. Bishop Gorman has also changed head coaches since last year, as Tony Sanchez moved on to coach at UNLV. The Gaels also looked inward for a replacement, hiring Sanchez’s brother, Kenneth, to take over their team.
“We’ve just seen one game film, but it’s the game they played that was on television Saturday,” Lambourne said. “They’re doing the same kinds of things. I’m sure they have a few wrinkles and they’ve done some specific preparation for us. We tend to have people do some things we’re not expecting. You’ve got to surprise us a little bit. We’ll try to be ready for anything they throw at us.”
One major reason Lambourne took the head job at Bingham was the desire of this coaching staff to all stay together a little bit longer. That coaching continuity is great for the Miners, and also seems to be something that is in place at Bishop Gorman. Come Friday night, coaching experience and all that time working as a unit should be helpful.
“I think that’s a strength that Bishop Gorman has also, in spite of both sides having new head coaches,” Lambourne said. “I just don’t see things being drastically different. There is something to say for that, even if one or two coaches are maybe getting outside the game plan a little bit, the others can reel them in. We cooperate and work really well together and I think it will be an advantage.”
Before they can get to the actual game at 7 p.m. Friday, the Miners have to navigate a week of preparation that also includes some additional hype that even extends beyond local media. Fortunately, success has led to attention that prepared Bingham for what it has dealt with this game week, when as many as 20,000 fans are expected to gather.
“I think, honestly, the kids are not exposed to all that hype that maybe the rest of us feel,” Lambourne said. “They’re not exposed in the same way. We’ve had a few interviews that have affected a few kids just prior to practice, and then we just get into practice and follow our routine and do our deal. I think a few years ago it maybe would have been more distracting just because it would have been new to us, but I think we’re okay.
“I think they (the players) sense it. I just think they’ve been able to handle it pretty good. Really it’s just time taken away from preparation or time taken away from focus. I actually like for our guys to be interviewed and have that opportunity. Those are growing experiences for them. Those are all good things that are part of the process.”
As for what will happen on the field, this is an intriguing matchup, particularly with the Miners coming off of a game in which they won while scoring just six points on two field goals against Herriman. The Gaels, on the other hand, have played just the one game, a nationally televised 35-14 win over highly-regarded Chandler (Arizona).
Bishop Gorman’s highest profile player is probably junior quarterback Tate Martell, who threw for a modest 145 yards in that contest. This is a team, however, with a lot of weapons, including running backs Biaggio Walsh (13 carries, 100 yards last week) and Jonathan Shoemaker (10 rushes, 60 yards). Walsh had a huge 55-yard scoring run in the second quarter of that game that helped the Gaels get going.
Tyjon Lindsey is a two-way player for Bishop Gorman as well. He caught a TD pass last week and also had an interception on defense. The Gaels are athletic and talented on both sides of the ball once again.
Right on Schedule
Through two games, Lambourne feels that his team is pretty much on schedule, overall. That doesn’t mean he thinks things are perfect, but he feels something familiar about everything. Some of his concerns coming in have already been put to rest.
“We like our replacement kicker, Kyle Mitchell. That was a concern, in terms of place kicking and he’s done really well,” Lambourne said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job in special teams. We were wondering how that might play out. Certainly there was some question with Dave (Peck) moving on with how our defense would respond, not so much from a strategic perspective, but just from an emotional, confidence perspective. I think Coach Cloward and all the defensive coaches have done a great job with that. The results have been good.
“I think we’re still trying to really discover what our strengths are offensively and it takes a while to get things going on the offensive end, and we’ve experienced that before. We’re just kind of where we’ve been before, I think.”
While the Miners have struggled to find their rhythm on offense, that defense is as good as advertised. Bingham returned five stars in its defensive front seven (Brigham Tuatagaloa, Parker Workman, Jay Tufele, Langi Tuifua and Simian Matagi) and senior BJ Taufalele has emerged to join that group in dominating the line of scrimmage.
The Miners have delivered two shutouts so far this year and seem to be running on all cylinders defensively heading into this high-profile showdown. Bingham also has two defensive backs (Ethan Erickson and Simote Lokotui) who saw significant time in all the big games last year.
“They played Bishop Gorman. We have at least seven guys out there that are familiar with their offensive scheme and then they’ve played in a game that ‘s built up to be pretty big,” Lambourne said in discussing his defense. “The fact that we went out there and played Booker T. (Washington) and those same boys played in that game has got to be an advantage. They can help the guys that didn’t get to play much in those games last year.
“For me, I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to do so well defensively up to this point and hopefully they continue. When you look at film, there’s always mistakes, even if you happen to shut somebody out or on the offensive side if you score 50, there’s still mistakes going on. We’ve played really good defensive games and our coaches have done a real good job of preparing the kids and I think they’re doing the same this week.”
But doesn’t the six-point output in last week’s game at Herriman provide cause for concern with such a big-time opponent up next?
“It would concern me coming into any game,” Lambourne said. “You’ve got to give some credit to Herriman and some of the things they were able to do. The game just kind of played out that way a little bit. I’m concerned at this time nearly every year and we seem to find our way, honestly. It’s one of those things where they say defense is usually ahead of offense as a whole. Maybe that’s true. I feel like for us we’ve been in this place before, not so much in terms of point productivity. I’m just saying the frustration of not doing things quite as well as we’d like to on offense and we seem to find our way. I’m hopeful.”
The Miners certainly have the weapons to get the offense rolling. Senior quarterback Keaton Torre threw completed 6-of-11 passes last week, but he connected on long plays through the air to both Brayden Cosper and Tyler Topham. The key may lie in getting some of the underneath stuff going with senior wideout Schyler Shoemaker.
The running game was taken away in large part by Herriman, so Jahvontay Smith and Elvis Vakapuna should be highly motivated to find the status quo Friday night. For Lambourne, the key is finding a state of “aggressive execution.”
“I don’t know if there’s just one thing to pinpoint (on offense),” Lambourne said. “If you look at us historically, it would probably be that we develop that physicalness, while at the same time working scheme. Sometimes that can be a bit difficult at first. In the process of getting your scheme and technique right, you might lose a little bit of aggressiveness, but if you don’t get the scheme right, you’re cooked to begin with.
“I do think the offensive line is the hardest part of the team to bring around. Keith Chatelain, our offensive line coach is terrific at making that happen. I think those same principles apply to all the positions. It’s aggressive execution, it’s what we’re striving for. One without the other, I don’t think, is going to make you a state championship caliber team.”
And when you look at the big picture, as big as Friday night’s game feels, the real goals of this team center around what happens in November. That won’t stop the Miners from trying to make a little noise along the way, even if it the chance comes on the first Friday in September.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Lambourne said. “You’ll see are you legit on a national level or do you have work to do? I can’t imagine that it has any real negatives to it. Just from a preparation perspective, would we love to be playing it later on in the year? Yea, but so would they. They would have the same advantage. I know we’ve had two games, they’ve only had one. Maybe that’s an advantage for us.”