For much of the first half of Friday’s 6A football semifinal at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, the East option attack had found some success when it went wide against American Fork.
When it mattered most, however, the Caveman defense had an answer.
The Leopards led by two points when they moved the ball into American Fork territory late in the first half, but East found itself facing a fourth-and-1 from the Caveman 38-yard line.
Usually that is almost a routine conversion for an option attack — but not this time.
Leopard running back Mapa Vaenuku swept wide, looking to find a tiny crease, but all he found was American Fork defenders. The Cavemen dropped Vaenuku for no gain, forcing a key turnover-on-downs.
Three plays later, American Fork sophomore quarterback Maddux Madsen lofted a gorgeous deep ball with enough air for senior wide receiver Tanner Holden to run under. Holden lunged into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown, then the Cavemen scored a two-point conversion to take the 20-14 lead.
American Fork would never trail again as it made the plays to secure the 37-27 win and a spot in the 6A title game for the second straight year.
“That defensive stop was a huge momentum-changer,” Holden said. “They had put the ball on the ground a couple of times but we weren’t able to get it. Finally, we were able to get the ball back and it was awesome.”
Caveman head coach Aaron Behm said that sequence turned the game in favor of his team.
“Those are deals because stops are rare when you play these guys,” Behm said. “Being able to get points off of that was enormous. The defense has been hungry to get better. They’ve worked extremely hard to get better and I think you are starting to see that late in the season.”
American Fork built on that momentum, getting an interception to end East’s final drive of the first half and then striking quickly on the first play of the second half as Madsen hit Holden on a streak route for an 88-yard touchdown.
“We knew that they would come out fighting until the end,” Holden said. “Getting that touchdown was a huge momentum-changer to start the second half.”
Behm said that was exactly the script the Cavemen wanted to have play out.
“We were hoping we could go into the half with the lead, then get the ball in the second half to go up by two scores,” Behm said. “Thankfully, that happened and we were able to keep that margin a little bit.”
The Leopards tried to battle back, getting a 23-yard TD run by freshman running back Amini Amone midway through the third quarter to narrow the gap.
But not only did American Fork have answers, it also controlled the ball. The Cavemen had possession for 16 of the 24 minutes of game action after the break.
“It was a physical battle in that first half,” Behm said. “We were kind of able to turn the tide in the second half. We kept the ball in our possession, chewed up a bunch of clock in the third and fourth quarters and kept their offense of the field. That was enormous.”
American Fork took 17 plays to get a 20-yard field goal from senior kicker Spencer Nielson to go back up by 9 points.
The Cavemen then used a 14-play drive after recovering an East fumble capped by a 1-yard fourth-down dive by senior running back Jaxon Gregory to virtually put the game away.
In the early going, it appeared it might be tough for American Fork to get stops as the two teams exchanged touchdowns.
East started the game with a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive, and American Fork answered with a 12-play, 80-yard drive.
The Cavemen got into the end zone on an 8-yard pass from Madsen to senior wide receiver Devin Downing, but the extra point failed, allowing the Leopards to stay in front.
East scored again on a 5-yard run by freshman running back Amini Amone, but American Fork refused to let the Leopards pull away.
The Cavemen answered with a 31-yard pass from Madsen to Downing, but the run failed on the conversion to make the score 14-12.
That set the stage for the key sequence that ended up giving American Fork the lead.
Now the Cavemen prepare for their second consecutive 6A title game.
“I was fortunate when I got this job because there is great community support, great kids, a great administration and school,” Behm said. “It’s just fun to be a part of it. We have just kept working and to now get there two years in a row is very, very special.”
American Fork will face Corner Canyon in the 6A championship at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City at 2:30 p.m. Friday.