Prep football: East specializes in trench warfare
It sticks in his mind: that moment when a championship slipped through his fingers.
Then-sophomore East defensive end Korey Rush was trying to wrap up Logan quarterback D.J. Nelson on fourth down. He was within sight, just feet away. The game would've been over if he just had gotten there.
Rush saw the throw but didn't see the catch. All he could hear was the roar of the crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"I thought maybe they were cheering because we had won," he said. "If we had known what was going to happen, I think maybe one of us could've gotten D.J. But we didn't get him. And we just broke down."
Needless to say, Rush and his Leopard teammates haven't lacked motivation this season. They turned back around and became even better.
To witness East football this year is to see dominance. Aside from a suspended game against Jordan that didn't end up counting, the Leopards have outscored their opponents by an average of 39 points per game. The team has allowed 61 fewer points than the next-best 4A defense this season.
And there's no secret to success: The Leopards like to do their battling in the trenches, and they have the hogs to win those battles. In year three of coach Brandon Matich's tenure, many football observers think East has the best team in the state.
"Anywhere you go, it's going to be a process to install your system," Matich said. "I think with the woes this group has had before I got here, it took a year or two to buy in. It took maturity from these younger guys to grow."
When Matich says "grow," he means emotionally. These guys always have been big.
Just look at Meti Taliauli, a BYU-committed defensive lineman. The 6-foot-2, 305-pound senior could be East's best player on either side of the ball, but the Leopards have kept him on offense to pave the way for their triple option.
He's not the only one: P.J. Nuasa could be a Division I player, while Tennessee Suesue has come back from a health condition that required him to have a pacemaker. With those leaders, it's not much of a surprise that the Leopards have racked up nearly 400 yards of offense per game, even when opponents know that East mostly is going to run it again and again.
The offensive line's favorite play? Quarterback sneak.
"It's funny because they always want to do quarterback sneak, even though it's usually kind of a nothing play," Matich said. "They want to run quarterback sneak on first and 10 just to get off the ball and knock the other guys back."
And then there's the defensive line.
Against Bountiful, the unit sacked quarterback Jordan Hayes three times in the first quarter, including the first two by Rush. There was no time to drop back, much less make a throw.
That's the kind of performance the group has come to expect out of itself. With Rush and returning all-state player Sione Lea'aetoa on the edges, and Sesi Salt and Samiu Teisina as nimble tackles, it's a no-win situation for opposition.
"We just love to rush the passer because we feel like that's where games are won and lost," said Rush, who has offers from BYU and Arizona State. "We want to set the tone with how we play."
The Leopards elected to platoon this season to save the energy of their best players, and it's worked out so far. Matich credits that to his assistant coaches, particularly his brother, Johnny Matich, who came in as a defensive-line specialist after a coaching stint at Taylorsville.
When the two units go against each other during the week, it's almost as dramatic as East's games.
"They're prideful guys," Matich said. "They talk all kinds of trash to each other in practice."
But although each unit feels the tug of pride, it doesn't distract them from the goal: Win a championship.
East's defense has the talent to be great. The Leopards want to be compared to the best offensive and defensive lines that ever have come through Utah.
But it means little to them if that doesn't include a title.
"I think we're a good group, but we don't have a claim yet to being one of the best defenses," Rush said. "We can definitely get better, but we just have to take care of our business."
Offensive, defensive lines dominant for East
Behind their offensive line, the Leopards have averaged nearly 400 yards per game.
Led by its defensive line, East has allowed only 39 points this season, leading 4A.