Jacob Wagner stood at the 50-yard line at Rice-Eccles Stadium, his No. 51 jersey ripped down the middle and shards of turf crowding his face.
The senior defensive lineman, attempting to catch his breath, helped spearhead a magnificent effort by the Desert Hills Thunder, one that carried the Thunder past defending Class 3A champion Dixie 21-14 on a misty and cold Friday morning.
Class 3AA state title
Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium
6:30 p.m. » Pine View vs. Desert Hills
O The Thunder have more return yards (203) than total offense (155) in the win.
» Desert Hills will play for the school’s first state title in football in only its second appearance in the championship game.
"No matter what team it is," Wagner said, "we’ve got to come out and dominate on the defensive end and help our offense out."
It did. The Thunder offense didn’t surpass the 100-yard mark of total offense until the 7:30 mark in the fourth quarter when running back Bridger Cowdin bowled in for the game-winning 1-yard touchdown run in the Class 3AA semifinal.
Quarterback Dominick Warmsley, under duress all day due to Dixie’s own stellar defensive day, finished with 39 yards rushing on 17 carries. Often left scrambling, Warmsley finished the day 2-of-4 passing for minus-3 yards.
"We’ve said it all year: Defense, defense, defense, and it’s proven that," Desert Hills coach Carl Franke said. "We’re only giving up nine points a game average, and we just have a lot of athletes on defense."
The Thunder utilized its athletes on special teams at the most crucial junctures of the season.
On the final play of the first half, Braden Reber returned a punt 48 yards, switching the field and barely sneaking in as the clock ran dry to give Desert Hills a 7-0 lead at half. Dixie responded in the third quarter due to prime field position. The Flyers got on the board on a 5-yard touchdown run by quarterback Ammon Takau and took the lead with 7 seconds left in the third on a 12-yard run by Konner Aitken.
Then Zakkary Fuchs mimicked Reber on the ensuing kick return, blazing to the end zone on a 92-yard touchdown return as the third quarter expired.
As was the case for the entire game, the Thunder defense answered the call, stopping Dixie’s last two drives with interceptions by Landen Broadhead and the game-sealing pick by Jacob Gabriel.
"I knew defensively we would have to play our best," Reber said, "and we did."
Desert Hills rolls into the 3AA title game next week against Pine View on the heels of 121 total yards of offense, a punt returned for a touchdown, a kickoff returned for a score and a 58-yard drive.
"If there was ever a time to play close together, it was today," defensive lineman Lausi’i Sewell said. "This was a team effort, not an individual effort."
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