How does a high school football team overcome three first-half turnovers?
Well, Orem found it helps to force two turnovers-on-downs and snag an interception of its own.
The Tigers had a tough time hanging onto the ball against Salem Hills during Thursday’s 5A state semifinal game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City but the Orem defense limited the damage and allowed the Tigers to pull away for the 51-14 win over the Skyhawks.
“We’ve been relying on our defense all year,” Orem head coach Jeremy Hill said. “We had a young offense. We had three turnovers in the first half but the defense responded. The defense did great, so hats off to them.”
The Tigers seized the advantage early with a defensive stop, then a big 65-yard touchdown on a third-and-15 screen pass from Orem junior quarterback Micah Fe’a to senior running back Buju Tuisavura.
The story for Salem Hills for much of the rest of the first half was missed opportunities.
The Skyhawks drove into Tiger territory on their second possession, looking to tie the game — only to have a fake punt turn into a turnover-on-downs as Orem sniffed it out.
Salem Hills senior defensive lineman John Nelson gave the Skyhawks another chance as he had a strip-sack and fumble recovery on the next Tiger play — but that turned into another turnover-on-downs when Orem sacked Salem Hills junior quarterback Jarret Elmer on a fourth-and-3.
“Throughout the week, we watched film and we came in with a great game plan,” Tiger senior running back/linebacker Buju Tuisavura said. “We knew they were a great team and that we had to be disciplined. I’m happy that we did that.”
The Orem offense doubled the lead on its next drive, getting a powerful 3-yard run by Sewell to get back in the end zone.
But the Skyhawks forced another Orem fumble and Elmer tossed a perfect fade pass to junior Austin Hallows for a 16-yard touchdown to give Salem Hills a shot of momentum.
The best chance for the Skyhawks to stay with the Tigers came when Orem faced a third-and-7 from its own 24-yard line.
A blown coverage, however, left Tiger senior tight end Brinton Paulson wide open for a 23-yard gain and the Tigers were never threatened again.
“When this offense clicks like it was today, we are a scary team,” Hill said. “We’ve had a lot of experience here, having played now five games at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the last three years. Harry Schwenke has done a phenomenal job preparing his team but it can be easy to get caught in the moment and I think that got to them a little bit.”
Orem got touchdown passes from Fe’a to senior Owen Williams (9 yards) and Paulson (7 yards), while Sewell added scoring runs of 8 yards and 46 yards and Cayden Viertel plunged in from 3 yards out as the Tigers pulled away.
“What we went through at the beginning of the season prepared us for these moments,” Tuisavura said. “The tough games helped us and shaped the team we are now.”
Orem dominated on the stat sheet as well, tallying 543 total yards on offense (276 rushing, 267 passing) while only allowing the Skyhawks to gain 111 yards. Salem Hills officially finished with minus-20 rushing yards, the fewest in a semifinal since Herriman held Sky View to minus-22 yards on the ground in 2015.
It was a disappointing end to the season for Salem Hills but Skyhawk head coach Harry Schwenke said his guys have plenty to be proud of from 2019.
“I’m proud of the boys,” Schwenke said. “This is what you do everything for. We had a team that bought in to what the coaches were teaching and that was being a complete team. It was sacrificing self for the team. We’ll get more than half of our players back but my heart goes out to the seniors who left everything on the field. It would’ve been nice to get the win but we’ll bounce back.”
It will be the third straight trip to the state championship for Orem. The Tigers won the Class 4A title in 2017 and 2018 and now look to add a 5A crown to that tally.
“We’ve talked about the 4A thing but when you get to the semifinals, it doesn’t matter if you are in 4A, 5A or 6A,” Hill said. “These are great teams. When you get to this point, everyone is phenomenal and you have to be ready.”
Tuisavura said his squad has the prize in its sights.
“It doesn’t mean anything to get to the championship if we don’t win,” Tuisavura said. “We have to go take care of business and then we will be good.”
It will be an all-Region 7 final as the Tigers (the No. 12 seed) will face No. 10-seed Timpview in the 5A championship.
The final is scheduled to be played at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 22.