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High school football: Defensive line's play has been been pivotal in Miners' success this season

Bingham vs. Fremont in the 5A semifinal high school football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Bingham won 35-12.
Bingham vs. Fremont in the 5A semifinal high school football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Bingham won 35-12.
Jeffrey D. Allred,

SOUTH JORDAN — While scoring touchdowns might be where most of the glory is in football, anyone who has ever coached the game will readily tell you that the key to winning a championship is having a great defense.

And Bingham High definitely has a great one.

The Miners (13-0) have the stingiest defensive unit among all of the state's 5A schools, allowing less than 12 points per game. Heck, they've only given up more than 21 points once all season long, and they've held eight opponents to nine or fewer points.

That terrific defense will be tested Friday, though, when Bingham battles Lone Peak for this year's 5A state championship at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Lone Peak piled up 66 points in its semifinal victory over American Fork last week, while Bingham's defense again did its job in shutting down a high-scoring Fremont squad, which had averaged almost 42 points per game this year, in an eventual 35-12 semifinal win of its own.

"I thought the perseverance of our defensive line was pretty impressive," Bingham head coach John Lambourne said in assessing the Miners' victory over the Silver Wolves. "Chasing around (Fremont quarterback) Saxton) Morby, holy moley, that was just crazy chasing him around. And he found No. 5, the (Haze) Hadley kid, and credit them for their perseverance to keep those plays going and lengthening those plays.

"But credit us for not having our wills broken. I thought our guys kept pursuing and kept working enough that it just kinda gradually worked in our favor. Our run defense is strong and has been all year. So we'll see what Lone Peak decides to do strategically."

The heart and soul of that dynamic D-line are players like 6-foot-4 senior defensive end Langi Tuifua, 295-pound senior nose guard Jay Tufele, senior defensive tackles Ben Malohi and sophomore DT Simote Pepa. They've been instrumental in making it awfully tough to run the ball against the Miners while also putting plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks in passing situations.

The Miners also get key contributions from linebackers Lolani Langi, Brigham Tuatagaloa, Saleka Ataata, Kai Fotu, Brody Price and Jakobi Matagi; and defensive backs Daniel Loua, Cole Moody, Jaylon Vickers, Tanner Merrill and Beau Hawkins.

"Our D-line is a definite strength of our team," Lambourne said. "By the same token, we've got guys like Daniel Loua and Lolani Langi that are terrific, and Tanner Merrill and Jaylon Vickers as cornerbacks who have really come along really nicely. And Brigham Tuatagaloa playing the middle linebacker position, those guys are all doing well, too.

"We've had other kids step up as the season has progressed as well."

In all, it's a very physical group with size and strength, along with a little mean and nasty to it, and it could hold the key to the outcome of Friday's 5A finale.

"The strength of the defense is just all of us working together as one unit," Tuifua said. "Each play couldn't work if one person wasn't doing their job. It's just good for us to work as a unit, and it makes everything work out.

"Lone Peak is a great team, no doubt. There's a reason why they're in the finals. We played them at the beginning of the season (a 42-21 Bingham win in Week 3), but that was the beginning of the season and we were both making a lot of mistakes. It's the end of the season now and they've probably fixed their mistakes; we've fixed our mistakes, too, and it's going to be a tough battle. Lone Peak already has my respect; I have a lot of friends over there.

"Man, I'm just so excited to play," he said with a laugh. "I just want to play already; I don't even want to watch film or any of that. I just wanted to jump straight into it after the (semifinal) game. I was ready to go. I'm so excited. It feels like time is running out, because it is. We only have one week left with this team, and if a team isn't doing everything they can to win this one last game with their brothers, and to win that championship title, then I don't know what they're thinking."

Tufele said the Miners' fierce physicality up front has been one of the keys to their effectiveness and success this season.

"Physically, I don't think anyone can match us," he said. "From play to play, their (opponents') bodies can only take them so far, but for all four quarters, I don't think anybody can last with us. … By halftime, you come out and you can tell that they're not the same as they were before, and that's like a win for us. I just don't think they can last with us.

"At practice, we get after it and kind of treat it like it's a game. We work hard all season long. We've been waiting for this; everybody's hard work is paying off.

"American Fork wasn't even giving them a game whatsoever," he said of Lone Peak's lopsided 66-19 victory over the Cavemen. "We were watching their D-line and there was no get-off or anything. But I think that's one thing that will really affect them is going against our front, I don't think they can really handle this. I'm not saying this to be cocky; I'm just saying this because I have faith in my D-line, and there isn't no better front in the state of Utah than my boys right here."

Malohi says it's his teammates' attitude and emotion that has made the difference between the Miners and their opponents.

"I think it's the attitude of our defense that's the reason why we do so well, because of how excited everyone gets," he said. "The emotion stays the same every game. It shows in practice, every time we scrimmage our offense, there's a reason why we do so well because everyone is excited, even if it's just practice. And the level increases even more during games."

But Malohi is wary of Lone Peak's passing attack and says that Bingham must be able to keep pressure on Knights' quarterback Dakota Hansen to prevent Lone Peak's offense from moving the chains up and down the field on Friday.

"I think their pass game could maybe hurt us a little bit. If we don't keep the pressure up, then we're not helping our linebackers or our DBs," Malohi said. "I think that's probably one of the weakest parts of our defense is our coverage sometimes, like it showed against Jordan (when the Miners allowed a season-high 40 points in a 58-40 win). They ran up the scoreboard on us for the first time this year. We kinda expected them to be a really good team, but I didn't think we'd come out that flat."

Even though Bingham beat Lone Peak in preseason play back in early September, that game probably won't have any bearing on Friday's outcome. However, last year's 5A semifinal showdown between these two teams, a 26-9 victory by the Knights that abruptly ended the Miners' season and the high state championship hopes that went with it, coud play a part due to the revenge factor.

Tufele, who didn't play in the two teams' preseason matchup due to an injury, feels like his team's superior depth and "next man up" mentality might be a deciding factor in Friday's rematch.

"I didn't play that game; I was injured that game," he said. "But the thing about us is we don't depend on just one player. If one player goes down, the next man steps up and that's what football is all about. I think we've made a lot of improvements; we've gotten better every week, and this week is just time to leave it all on the field and we're gonna show up and show them how dominant we can be."

Domination is something the Miners' program has grown accustomed to. With five state championships over a 10-year period from 2006-2015, few other prep programs in Utah can lay claim to a much better winning tradition than Bingham High can.

It's a tradition that Tuifua says helps push him and his teammates to work hard and excel.

"It helps us," he said. "Growing up, I grew up here in South Jordan, my brothers played here, my two cousins played here, and they were all winning teams. We go by this thing called 'tabu' here; it's all before us. It's sorta like if you're losing, then you're disrespecting all the people before us. It's just like they've had winning teams in the past and you can't let them down. It's just a constant tradition of winning."

"I think it's like a badge of honor because there's a lot of teams with great athletes, and we sit and wonder why are they struggling the way they are," Malohi said of the high expectations that are placed on Bingham's program every year. "And it's just because their program might not be run as well as ours, which a lot of people know how Bingham's program is. I think we take a lot of pride in it, in and how good our coaching staff is and everything else involved with our team is."

Should Bingham come away with a win in Friday's 5A title game, the Miners would not only claim their sixth state championship in 11 years, but this year's team would give itself an opportunity to join an elite group known at the school as "Miner Royalty" — those top teams that have finished off their seasons by bringing home the state championship.

"It actually motivates us, it's tradition," Tufele said. "We have everything we've worked so hard for, and it all comes down to this one week right here. It's all for what we call Miner Royalty; you're not royalty, you're not part of the Miner Royalty until you finish off with that ring.

"And having that ring is the greatest feeling, I swear, that you can ever get. You just want to be part of that Miner Royalty. That's why we've got to do it, that's why this week means so much to all of us."