By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis
SALT LAKE CITY – Sometimes you look at the final score of a football game and think it tells the entire story, but such is often not the case.
Friday night’s 4A football state championship game was certainly a statement from East as it beat three-time defending state champion Timpview resoundingly, 49-14. The Leopards dominated the second half to pull away for that lopsided final score, but there was a time early in the contest when it seemed very much in doubt.
Once East got it rolling, midway through the third quarter, the Thunderbirds were unable to stop the avalanche, but really got away from them a little earlier than that. It was the fifth consecutive year these two teams have met in the postseason and Timpview had won the last three.
Here are our five top takeaways from the 4A state title battle, as the Leopards won their first state championship since 1996, when they also beat Timpview.
1) Missed Opportunities
Three times in the period between its final possession of the first half and the midway point of the third quarter, Timpview had chances to hold serve against the Leopards, and it came up short all three times. That sequence changed the course of this game.
With the two teams trading touchdowns through the first half, East hit pay dirt with 1:53 left before intermission, giving the Leopards a 21-14 advantage. Then, it was the T-Birds’ turn, or was it?
Timpview took possession at its own 35-yard-line after a Samson Nacua kick-off return and then it moved to the East 31 courtesy a 34-yard connection between quarterback Kahi Neves and Nacua. Four plays later the same hook-up on a fourth-and-2 had the Thunderbirds 19 yards from the end zone with just over 30 seconds left before the break.
Then, however, it was Johnnie Lang’s turn to make a play. The East quarterback rarely leaves the field as he plays defensive back as well. With 28 seconds left in the half, Lang picked off a Neves aerial to keep Timpview from scoring the tying touchdown.
That was the first point at which this contest turned heavily towards the Leopards. East had the ball first in the second half, but fumbled on its own 24-yard-line, putting the T-Birds in position once again to level the score with a very short field.
After running nearly four minutes off the clock, Timpview moved the ball only as far at the 10 before going backwards. First, a false start penalty cost the Thunderbirds five yards, and then after an incomplete pass, facing a fourth-and-11, Neves was sacked by Misimoa Heimuli at the East 22.
After denying Timpview the tying score once again, the Leopards went three-and-out, almost…East picked up a net (-2) yards on its three plays and proceeded to punt the ball back to the Thunderbirds, but Timpview was called for roughing the kicker. Two plays later, Lang broke loose for a 64-yard touchdown run and the rout was on.
2) The Johnnie Lang/Jaylen Warren Show
The Lang interception was a huge play in the development of the East victory, but the Leopard quarterback also delivered a pair of his familiar explosive runs during that same segment of the game as he led his team to victory. The first was the touchdown at the 1:53 mark of the second stanza that put East on top 21-14 as Lang broke off a 57-yard scoring dash.
The second score was that 64-yarder in the third period that provided the game’s first two-touchdown advantage and launched the Leopards on their way to the overwhelming final tally. Overall, Lang finished one yard shy of 200 on 20 carries.
Running back Jaylen Warren had an even bigger night for the Leopards, running for 231 yards, a performance that included a 71-yard run in the third quarter and a 77-yard carry in the fourth. The junior didn’t get to the end zone on either as Timpview defenders ran him down, but both led to Leopard touchdowns.
3) Samson Nacua
A Timpview game in 2015 was always good for a couple of highlight-reel moments from receiver Samson Nacua. The senior gets to balls that seem to be uncatchable for mere mortals, and this game was no different.
The most notable such moment Friday night came early in the second quarter, when the Thunderbirds were looking for a tying touchdown, trailing 14-7. It was third-and-4 at the East 41-yard-line and it seemed Neves had nowhere to go with the ball.
The Timpview triggerman put one up in the air in the direction of Nacua, who was blanketed by Jordan Anderson down at the East 5. The T-Bird wide-out elevated and snatched the ball at his highest point with Anderson’s hands right in his face. It was the kind of catch Nacua makes look way too easy. He caught nine balls in the game, for 135 yards, in his final appearance in a Timpview uniform.
The Lang pick late in the first half was a huge momentum changer, but the combination of pressure on the quarterback and some varied looks in the secondary allowed the Leopards to intercept Neves three times in this state final matchup.
The interceptions are a statistic you can put your finger on, but they are really just the evidence of an overall defensive effort and game plan from East that had the Thunderbirds on their heels much more than they prefer.
The first of the night came when Timpview was driving to take an early lead on its second series in the opening quarter. The T-Birds reached East’s 23-yard-line before being pushed back by a penalty.
Eventually, it was third-and-14 and Daymon Murray nearly picked off a pass, but on fourth, Samisoni Fonau did make the catch for the interception. Later, Helaman Suesue put the finishing touches on the state title when he snatched a Neves pass in the end zone to thwart another scoring chance.
5) The Passing Game
This East team won’t be confused with a passing juggernaut any time soon, but when they needed to make a play through the air, the Leopards always seemed to find a way. Twice in the first half, facing a third-and-long, East went to the air to pick up a big first down, and one of those came on a 13-yard connection to Loa Kaufusi that directly proceeded that long Lang scoring run in the first half.
Then, while the Leopards were in the process of salting the game away, Lang found Colsen Peterson down the sideline for a diving grab that put East at the 1-yard-line.
East running game – 504 yards
Jaylen Warren, East – 18 carries, 231 yards, 2 TDs
Johnnie Lang, East – 20 carries, 199 yards, 3 TDs
Helaman Suesue, East – 7 tackles, tackle-for-loss, interception
Misimoa Heimuli, East – 6 tackles, 1.5 sacks
Samson Nacua, Timpview – 9 receptions, 135 yards
Nate Richardson, Timpview – 12 tackles
Will Watanabe, Timpview – 11 tackles, forced fumble, fumble recovery