Herriman •It was evident from the beginning that the No. 1 seed was going to defend its home-field advantage tooth and nail.
East found itself down 8-0 in the second quarter to home team Herriman, which reluctantly had been paired with the forfeit-stricken Leopards much sooner than it would have liked. And the Mustangs played with a fury to match their frustration.
Then East finally woke up.
"We started a little slow at first, but we got more into a rhythm as we got into the game," East running back Ula Tolatau said. "It was just breaking tackles and opening holes."
The Leopards (4-7) found enough gaps for big plays that tilted the game in their favor in a 27-16 win Saturday night. From a mesmerizing kick return to long, galloping runs that left the Mustangs (8-3) in the dust, East prevailed by busting out big yards and touchdowns in a game that first appeared to be a defensive battle.
The Leopards dominated at the line of scrimmage in the middle stretch of the contest. Quarterback Isaac Valles and Tolatau combined for 312 yards rushing and a pair of scores.
Perhaps no drive was more important, however, than the seven-minute possession in the fourth quarter that stalled a Herriman comeback attempt.
"We knew it would be a game, but I don't think we were expecting it to be that physical," East wideout and defensive end John Fakahafua. "We were impressed by our offensive line and defensive line, how they held up the whole game."
The defense suppressed the usually robust Herriman running game, holding stars Brandon Farmer and Francis Bernard to only 8 yards combined on the ground.
The Mustangs got life from quarterback Tueni Lupeamanu, who rolled left and right scrambling from East's pass rush. The senior piled up 310 yards and a score on a 17-of-39 night, blowing up the East secondary as few have this year.
But most of Herriman's progress came between the 20s. Although Lupeamanu found his receivers downfield, particularly Connor Johnson, they had limited success when the team got to the red zone. A 1-yard scoring run by Bernard and a two-point conversion gave Herriman some hope, but the Mustangs couldn't get a first down on their last two possessions.
East for the most part didn't wait to get to the red zone to score. Preston Curtis revitalized his team in the second quarter by returning a 95-yard kickoff for East's first points. That was followed by a 61-yard touchdown pass from Valles to Zach Swenson, a 16-yard touchdown run by Tolutau, and a 66-yard touchdown run by Valles.
East, which was playing its second game of the postseason without coach Brandon Matich, advanced to a quarterfinal date at Box Elder. The Leopards acknowledged they must play better to keep advancing.
Herriman's best-ever season came to a startling halt in the first round of the playoffs once again, albeit with highly unusual circumstances. But afterward, coach Larry Wilson didn't show anger that his team had to play East.
"I think that we obviously have taken great steps forward," Wilson said. "I'm not sure there's any moral victories, but there's certainly cause for our kids, our community and as a school to be very proud of what we have done."