By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis & Kurt Johnson
It’s the postseason and that means it’s time for an East vs. Timpview matchup. The 2015 Class 4A championship battle between these two football powerhouses marks the fifth consecutive season they have faced off in the postseason.
With the exception of the 2014 contest that came in the opening round of the playoffs, Rice-Eccles Stadium is the usual venue when these two get together.
The current run of head-to-head battles began in the 2011 state semifinal. That 24-10 win by the Leopards featured a dominating defensive performance and two 100-yard runners for East. It is also the last time the Leopards have beaten Timpview.
Each of the past three seasons, the Thunderbirds have knocked East out of the tournament on their way to the state championship. In 2012, odds favored the East ground game in a snow storm, but it was Timpview quarterback Jake Lloyd who took to the air, firing four touchdown passes in leading the Thunderbirds to a 24-10 victory.
The next year, the 2013 state championship game was a classic. After East pounded on Timpview with an unstoppable running game in the first half, the T-Birds made the adjustments at the break, shutting down the Leopard runners and turning loose Britain Covey in an exhilarating 33-28 win.
Last season was a down year for East, at least by Leopard standards, and the team slipped into the tourney as a No. 4 seed. That sent them to Provo to face a first-round game at Timpview. This time, with Covey finishing off his stellar high school career, expectations of a Thunderbird rout were there.
The Leopards had a few surprises, however. They controlled the clock, ran the ball and kept Covey and company standing on the sidelines. The East defense picked off Mr. Football twice in that first half and had Timpview on the ropes until Isaiah Holloway took the second-half kick-off to the house to provide just enough margin for an 18-8 win that started the Thunderbirds on the road to consecutive title No. 3.
Now they’re back, these defensive juggernauts, to do battle one more time and the state championship is on the line. It’s been building all year and it should be a great one.
How They Got Here
East (10-2) beat Springville (11-1) 42-14
The chance at a close game headed south early, but not because Springville was unable to move the football. It was the Red Devils inability to finish off drives against the East defense that allowed the Leopards to open up a lead that turned out to be too much for Springville to overcome.
The Red Devils’ had three offensive possession in the first half, and all three ended the same way, with the ball turned over on downs. The opening series ended on the East 32 when a fourth-and-10 play gained just seven yards, the second was a 14-play drive that ended on a 3-yard run to the 3-yard line on a fourth-and-goal from the Leopard 6-yard-line.
The third time Springville had the ball, it marched 11 plays, but turned the ball over on downs after a fourth-and-goal play ended at the East eight.
While the Red Devils passed on field goals and came up short on those fourth-down attempts, East used the big play to get a 14-0 halftime advantage. The first score came on a 35-yard run by Jaylen Warren and the second when quarterback Johnnie Lang busted off a 69-yard TD run.
Warren was injured late in the first half and, while he returned briefly after intermission, all of his rushing attempts came before the break. That left the second half on the capable legs of Lang, who scored on second-half runs of 57, 18 and three yards, and completed an 81-yard touchdown pass to Colsen Peterson for good measure.
Timpview (11-1) beat Highland (8-4) 49-27
A close game (21-19) at halftime turned into a comfortable Timpview win after a quick second-half start allowed the Thunderbirds to create some space. Timpview got the ball to begin the third quarter and scored on a Kahi Neves to Samson Nacua 34-yard connection to increase the advantage to 28-19.
A Highland fumble on the ensuing possession gave the Thunderbirds another shot at the Ram 30 and they cashed it in. This time, Neves hooked up with Kyle Van Leewen for a 33-yard TD toss and the lead was 35-19.
It was not a dominating defensive performance by the T-Birds, but when they needed a play, they managed to make one. Neves has perhaps his best game of the season, completing 15-of-24 for 266 yards and four scores while running for 97 more yards, and Nacua turned seven catches into 151 yards for yet another huge day.
Which playmakers will decide the 4A state championship battle between East and Timpview? Here are a few to watch:
Johnnie Lang, quarterback – The Leopards will run the ball on almost every down, and their quarterback is one of the primary weapons. He is a touchdown-in-waiting every time he turns up field. Lang ran for 280 yards in the semifinal win over Springville, which included scoring bursts of 57 and 69 yards. The surprising part was the 81-yard touchdown pass he threw, just to keep the defense honest.
Jaylen Warren, running back – Warren was injured late in the first half against Springville, after collecting 104 yards on 16 carries. He returned briefly in the second half, but with the game in control, East gave him some down time. Warren has 1,519 yards to go with Lang’s 1,589 this season. He is the inside power runner who makes it easier for Lang to get the edge.
Defensive Front Seven – Led by linebacker Helaman Suesue, along with linemen Fusimalohi Tiesina and Misimoa Heimuli, East has an attacking front seven that should put pressure on the Timpview passing game, while also slowing the Thunderbird running game. The key will be matching up with Timpview receiver Samson Nacua.
Samson Nacua, wide receiver – Samson Nacua is a threat in the throwing game and he is an explosive kick returner. When needed earlier this year, he even played some quarterback for Timpview. The senior receiver has amazing hands, the ability to get open and the speed to kill you once he does.
Kahi Neves, quarterback – The Timpview signal caller is playing his best football as the season comes down the stretch run. He passed for 266 yards and four scores in the semifinal win over Highland and also ran for 98. The Thunderbirds get rushing yards from three different running backs in addition to Neves, but he needs to keep the team balanced.
Will Watanabe & Keenan Pili, defensive backs – Timpview has a number of outstanding defensive players, and you can expect defensive lineman Branson Brotherson and linebacker Nathan Richardson to lead their units in the effort to stop the East running attack, but if the Thunderbirds are going to have success against an offense that regularly churns out 400 yards on the ground, the secondary will have to support well. Watanabe and Keenan Pili will be critical in that regard, and Watanabe is a huge factor in this game because he has the potential to make a big game-changing play in the kick return game, just as he did in the state final a year ago against Roy.