OREM – Over and over again Friday night, Desert Hills got in scoring position against the Orem Tigers. And time and again, the Thunder squandered those opportunities away. It ultimately cost them the game.
Turnovers and mistakes turned a tight ballgame into an Orem runaway in the 4A quarterfinals as the Tigers defeated Desert Hills 37-17 on Orem’s home field. The victory sends the Tigers into the 4A semifinals and ends the season for D-Hills.
“They came out here tonight and got that big kick return and sucked some of the air out of the building for us,” Orem coach Jeremy Hill said. “But our defense made some big plays. Every time we asked them to get a stop, they got a stop.”
Desert Hills made five trips into the red zone in the contest, including three in the first half with the chance to take the lead. Three points was all the Thunder could get out of those five journeys.
The first came on that big kick return courtesy of Gage Baird. He took the opening kickoff of the game and returned it all the way to the Orem 28-yard line. Brock Parry ran the first play from scrimmage for a 10-yard gain and it was first down for DH at the 18 of Orem.
But the Thunder managed to gain just 3 yards over the next three plays and had to be happy with a 32-yard field goal from Logan Callister and a 3-0 lead two minutes into the game.
After an exchange of punts, Orem got its first lead on a deep pass from Cooper Legas to Puka Nacua. It came on a third-and-20 play from the Tigers own 4-yard line and highlighted the prowess of Nacua, who was on his way to a big night. Legas noticed man coverage on Nacua and heaved the ball 50 yards downfield. Nacua ripped the ball away from the Thunder defender, slipped the attempted tackle and raced to pay dirt.
“I knew I could still get it to him and I can always throw him the ball,” Legas said. “When I throw it his way, I know he will go and get it. And if he ever has the ball, you know there is a chance he can score. He is always making plays.”
That made it 6-3 with 2:06 left in the first quarter and the score would stay that way through most of the rest of the half.
The Thunder reached the red zone again early in the second quarter, but a sack forced a long field goal try, which Callister missed.
Still, Desert Hills’ defense was playing well and the Thunder made their third trip to the red zone late in the first half. Behind a crisp running game from Brock Parry and Noah Sewell, DH marched from its own 33 to the Orem 9-yard line. But instead of kicking a field goal to tie, the Thunder went for it on fourth-and-2 and were marked just short of the first down.
Orem then took the ball 93 yards in 10 plays to gain a 14-3 halftime lead. Nacua scored the TD on a 14-yard pass from Legas just before halftime.
“That was pivotal for us,” Hill said. “You know, had they gone in and scored and taken all that momentum back, I don’t know how the game turns out.”
The tables were turned on the opening kick of the second half as Nacua took Callister’s boot and returned 87 yards to the Thunder 3-yard line. Two plays later, Legas hit Enoch Fiso and just like that, it was 21-3.
“I don’t like getting hit,” said Nacua, who had seven catches for 248 yards and four touchdowns in the Tigers’ win. “I have big brothers and they were always beating on me, so I had to learn to be fast. I don’t like to get beat on.”
Once again, Desert Hills marched into the Orem red zone. This time, after a long Sewell run set the Thunder up at the 5-yard line of Orem, Desert Hills fumbled the ball away on a bobbled handoff attempt.
On the very next play, Legas hit Nacua on a short crossing pass. The shifty receiver juked out several defenders and sprinted down the left sideline for a back-breaking 93-yard TD catch-and-run that made it 27-3 with 8:09 to go in the third quarter.
A blocked punt set up the Tigers final score of the game, a 3-yard TD run by Peter Kanese that made it 34-3 late in the third quarter.
Desert Hills did add two late scores. Bo Barben hit Sewell for a 26-yard TD pass and Parry rushed a TD in from 61 yards, but it was not nearly enough.
The Tigers racked up 348 yards of offense, 280 of those by Legas in the passing game. He had five TDs, four of them to Nacua.
For Desert Hills, Parry rushed for 181 yards on 16 carries, while Sewell finished with 152 yards on 16 attempts. The Thunder close their season with a 6-5 record with the loss.
Orem, 10-2, continues its season with a Friday night matchup against undefeated Sky View. The two teams will square off in the 4A semifinals at 6 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
4A State Playoffs quarterfinal games
Mountain Crest 18, Dixie 17
Stansbury 38, Ridgeline 7
Sky View 35, Pine View 21
Orem 37, Desert Hills 17
State 4A semifinals (Rice Eccles Stadium)
Mountain Crest vs. Stansbury, 6 p.m.
Sky View (11-0) vs. Orem (10-2), 6 p.m.
4A championship game (Rice Eccles Stadium)
Nov. 17, 11 a.m.
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