Murray • On the surface, they’re not unlike other high school football games. Players execute pass and run plays. They kick extra points after touchdowns. They’re constantly told by referees to keep the required distance from the sideline.
But Tuesday’s games were unlike any other in this respect: They only lasted one half, and were that short in order to settle a three-way tie for fourth place to determine which of Murray, West and Skyline high schools would advance to the Utah High School Activities Association Class 5A State Football Championships.
Murray, West and Skyline each finished with a 1-4 record in their region. In the event of a three-way tie, the rule is those three teams play each other for one half. The winner of the first half faces the team that was awarded a bye via a previously decided coin toss. The team that wins the second half would make the playoffs.
Murray, which defeated West 24-21 in the first half, beat Skyline 17-14 in the second and advanced to the playoffs. In both, Murray kicked a field goal in the fourth quarter to eclipse its opponent.
The format presents some unique challenges. Skyline head coach Zac Erekson on Monday called the situation “a lose-lose” from a preparation standpoint.
“I think this is really hard because it doesn’t set any of us up for success,” Erekson said. “You have to worry about beating two opponents on a very short week and flip that around, if you win, to prepare yourself to play a (No.) 1 seed from another region.”
The teams learned the results of the coin flip last Wednesday, when representatives of all three schools gathered at Skyline to witness the results. That day was also the last day of school before fall break, which gave each team less than a week to prepare for their play-in game.
Because Skyline drew tails and the other two schools drew heads, Skyline won the toss and got to wait to see whether Murray or West would come out of the first-half game. But Erekson didn’t see the result as much of an advantage after initially feeling relief.
He said having to prepare for two teams, which he described as different schematically, took away any advantage that could be gained by not having to play two halves.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Erekson said.
When Skyline kicked off to start the second half, however, it felt just like any other game, Erekson said Tuesday. Well, with one caveat: figuring out whether to wear home or away jerseys without knowing who had won the first half.
“That was the hardest part,” Erekson said. “We didn’t know if we were going to be in blue or if we were going to be in white. Then once we put the blue jerseys on, we were ready to go and it was what it was.”
Murray and West both felt differently than Erekson about the challenges of preparing for two opponents. Murray coach Todd Thompson said Monday that Skyline and West’s offenses and defenses were similar, which gave Murray the opportunity to, in effect, prepare for both at the same time. West coach Justin Thompson concurred.
West junior quarterback Abraham Williams said he felt no difference in preparing for Tuesday’s game. He added that the team focused mostly on winning the game against Murray.
Williams’ teammate, senior running back Faysal Aden, said the team’s preparation was “exactly the same.”
But as the game went on, what Justin Thompson found notable on Tuesday was what adjustments came when. Midway through the second quarter, he found himself caught in between figuring out whether to play faster to earn an extra possession, or play slower and draw out the clock.
“It’s weird to be managing clock that early with (a win-or-lose) consequence,” Justin Thompson said. “That felt pretty alien.”
West’s offense was affected by the truncated format, Justin Thompson said. He wanted to call a few special plays early in the game in order to get a quick lead.
But West couldn’t execute those plays when they were called. All three touchdowns it scored came off its base offense, on the same play, Justin Thompson said.
With not much time allowed, each team’s coach stressed the importance of getting off to good starts. Murray was the beneficiary of winning both coin tosses and chose to receive the ball in each instance. Murray scored its first touchdown in 56 seconds against West, and in 1 minute, 4 seconds against Skyline.
“That was the most important drive of the game is just to start off with good plays and put it in,” Murray sophomore quarterback Payson Hadley said. “It also helped to knock them in the mouth, to kind of show them that we came to play. That 100 percent was important to the game.”
Todd Thompson said he was glad his team won the first-half game and thought that gave Murray a lift it needed to beat Skyline and make the playoffs.
“We had warmed up, we had hit the pads, been tackled and so forth, compared to (Skyline) just warming up,” Todd Thompson said. “I thought it was a huge momentum for us.”