By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Kevin McInnis
Even champions need the occasional wake-up call. Such is the case for the Bingham High football team, which is used to spending the third Friday in November playing for state championships.
A year ago, the Miners were rolling and appeared to be headed for another title when they ran into Lone Peak in a state semifinal matchup. Despite their undefeated status, the Knights were considered by many an underdog to the powerhouse from South Jordan.
The Lone Peak defense hit the Miners hard and big plays, in particular a pair of long touchdown passes from Talmage Gunther to Jackson McChesney, took Bingham off its game. When the afternoon ended, the Knights had claimed a 26-9 win and the Miners’ season was over.
Every team has to face their cold reality, and that was, I wouldn’t say so much just the loss, it’s just that nothing really came together in that game,” said Bingham coach John Lambourne in reflecting back as he prepares for another postseason battle with Lone Peak this week. “I think we kind of felt disappointed about maybe less than a stellar performance. You do have to give the credit to Lone Peak. That was a good football team.”
Fast forward to Week 3 of the 2016 season, the rematch had a very different look. Bingham was on top of its game and the Miners rolled up 42 points on their way to an overwhelming 42-21 win. It’s the only blemish on Lone Peak’s season. As these two juggernaut’s prepare for one more battle Friday afternoon, this one for the state championship, Lambourne feels like there aren’t a lot of secrets left between the two teams.
“I think there was a little bit of unknown as to what they might try to do last year when we played them, to be honest with you,” Lambourne said. “We’ve become almost one of the novel teams with the way we do things offensively and even some of the things we do defensively. So, when you’re novel, you never know what someone’s going to bring to counteract that. I would just say, overall, both teams now know each other quite well so I don’t think there will be too many surprises.”
The one thing that is very apparent in the matchup is the athletic ability of the Lone Peak skill position players.
“Their athleticism in general would be the thing anybody could point at last year and this year,” Lambourne said. “They’ve got some athletic kids out there in the skilled positions and some pretty stout guys on their o-line and their system’s complemented by those two things, but overall, probably the athleticism (stands out).”
When the Miners take the field, everyone pretty much knows what to expect, or do they? The perception that Bingham is going to run at you and grind it out in the ground game is true, but Lambourne takes particular pride in the efficiency of his team’s passing game over the years.
“We can do a lot of different things and Lone Peak knows that. It’s kind of what do we choose and what does the game dictate to do,” he said. “You look at our quarterbacks over the years, for the most part, we’re in that 23 to 30 passing touchdowns with maybe three, four, five interceptions. Those are pretty good ratios and in terms of number of scores, those are pretty good and I think sometimes some of that stuff goes a little bit unnoticed. Our opponents that play us year in and year out, they’re very much aware of those kind of things.”
Doing Bingham Things
So, what will Bingham bring to the party Friday afternoon? That’s something we’ll all have to wait and see.
“When it comes to deciding to change up what we’ve done and what’s been successful, I don’t think that is a wise thing to do with one week of preparation,” Lambourne said. “We take each week and go in with some of our favorites and we assess as the game goes. It’s interesting, you never really know until you get in the game. You can play the same opponent a couple different times and then might be different based on not only strategy, but who’s playing well on that day, what level of health do they have. There are a lot of things that go into it, but we’re going to be who we are and let the chips fall where they are.”
One of the things that looks a little different about this Bingham team is having a few players going both ways, on offense and defense. For many years, the Miners have been one of the few teams that has chosen not to platoon their players and it has been extremely successful.
This season, some injuries at the running back position introduced a change in that area that has worked out well. While there has been the occasional player who has played on both sides of the ball, it has never happened with running backs, but Daniel Loua and Amoni Kaili have been so good, it’s been impossible to keep them off the field.
Those two were the team’s leading rushers in the Miners’ semifinal win over Fremont, both going for over 100 yards while also playing defense.
“We started out with Jahvontay Smith, he was the feature back and he was running the ball terrific,” Lambourne said. “He’s had a few injuries, that led to Tate Peterson getting his opportunities and he shined. That also led to us using a couple of guys that also do a little bit on defense, Daniel Loua and Amoni Kaili. It’s kind of been a little bit of a discovery process as to how those guys have emerged that way. It’s been kind of a by-committee deal so there’s a little bit of rotation involved.”
The nice thing for Lambourne is that he doesn’t have to substitute his backs situationally. He can pretty much ride the hot hand…or hot feet.
“All those guys can run all of our schemes very well, there’s not one that can only do this and one that can only do that,” he said. “They’re all pretty versatile and their success, of course, has to be at least somewhat related to how the offensive line plays, how our blocking backs do, how well our receivers block. That’s really a team effort and I like it that way, not that we purposely went that way but I like the fact that guys are stepping up and are willing to sacrifice for each other and encourage each other.
“When Daniel Loua scored what ended up being not the go-ahead touchdown but the one that made it probably comfortable, like we got this now (against Fremont), Jahvontay Smith, it showed on TV, he was congratulating Daniel and I think that’s what we’ve got going and it’s a pretty good thing.”
Lambourne credits his assistant coaches for having Loua and Kaili ready to go with both units, despite the fact that the two-way player is not the norm at Bingham. He says it has not hampered or even really changed, their game preparations.
“The good part is our practice structures haven’t had to change much. We just require a little bit more on the part of those guys that do that,” Lambourne said. “My assistants have done a terrific job in that regard, speaking specifically to the running backs. Russ Morgan is our running backs coach and he’s kind of had to handle the chaos of that. Sometimes we have those guys on the offensive practice and sometimes they’re over with the defensive guys so he’s had to keep track of all of them and make sure they’re up to date on what we’re doing.”
While it’s offense is certainly a highly effective unit for Bingham, these team still dominates because its defense is elite every single season.
“I think our defensive coaches and their commitment to it has been terrific to start with. We seem to be able to come up with good players in all positions,” Lambourne said in describing the consistency of his defense from year to year. “The system promotes some of that, but you’ve got to give credit to the kids. They work hard, they study hard and then they play hard.
“You have a bad play, but they don’t tend to have another one right after it. I’m not saying we’re perfect. I think that’s a work ethic, focus, concentration thing as much as anything, to not have back-to-back bad plays. I love our guys on that side, they’re terrific players, good kids.”
Return of Tufele
Bingham played most of the season without perhaps its most dominant defensive player, as defensive tackle Jay Tufele was recovering from injury. Now, he’s back and that means this group is at its best when the games are most important.
“For the most part we’re talking about one additional stout guy up front and the linebacker strength is promoted with those guys up front and that’s where it starts,” Lambourne said. “The University of Utah is a prime example of a team that’s bought into the importance of a good D-line and Jay also happens to be top caliber. That takes a strong group and makes them even stronger, which parlays into advantages on the back side. It’s been nice to have him back and I guess I’d say he’s played himself into shape. I suspect he’ll have a real nice game on Friday.”
Preparing for state title games is hardly new for the Miners, but Lambourne can’t state for certain the been-there, done-that nature of this week is an advantage to his team. He doesn’t have much with which he can compare it.
“Just using intuition, there’s got to be some advantage to being used to it as long as you appreciate it,” Lambourne said. “I think that this group of kids, as much as any team we’ve ever had, I think they really do appreciate the opportunity. We’ll see what happens on Friday, but I don’t think they will in any way take the opportunity for granted.”
So what are the keys to a Bingham win over Lone Peak? Lambourne’s response to that is just what you might think it would be.
“If we run the football, that’s a good thing. That’s the place to start and that’s something that assists the whole team,” he said. “It keeps the defense off the field, gives them a little break. If you’re running the ball well, you generally don’t go backwards, you go forward, even if you punt it you create a long field.”
He knows his team will have its hands full with Lone Peak, but not for the obvious reasons. The Knights might be perceived as a big-play team, but Bingham’s coach knows better. He knows Bingham has to keep the Knights’ athletes in check, but it goes beyond that.
“You get athletes out there, just one flawed play and they might be in the end zone and I think that’s probably it more than anything,” Lambourne said. “Having said that, I don’t think Lone Peak is just a big-play type of team. They don’t rely just on the big play, they rely on some consistency as well, so we don’t want to give up easy things, but at the same time, we know that we’ve got to outwork them.”