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4A high school football preview: Highland faces tall task against Alta's explosive offense


Highland (8-2) at Alta (10-1)

4A state tournament quarterfinals

Friday 3:30 p.m.

Parry’s Power Guide: Highland by 5

All-time series: Highland leads 6-1

Coach vs. coach: First meeting between Alta’s Alema Te’o and Highland’s Brody Benson

Last meeting: Oct. 14, 1992 – Highland 24-19

Two vastly different styles will clash when Alta hosts Highland in the 4A quarterfinals on Friday, the first meeting between the schools in 24 years.

Alta is a prototypical spread offensive and likes to play as fast and possible and run as many plays as possible. It’s averaging 50.5 ppg this season, and can score in a hurry as 23 of its 76 offensive touchdowns this year have been over 40 yards.

Conversely Highland runs the triple option, and its bread and butter is clock-churning 12-play drives that methodically break the spirits of a defense.

Something’s gotta give on Friday.

“We need to focus on our style of offense and being able to put 10- and 12- and 15-play drives together and walk away with points, and try and keep their offense off the field,” said Highland coach Brody Benson.

Even then, Alta has proven all year it only needs one or two plays to score sometimes. If that’s how the game plays out, Benson is confident the Rams can keep up.

“As far as our offensive production for the year I think we’ve done a really good job,” said Benson.

Nobody can match the productivity of Alta though.

Running back Josh Davis has rushed for 2,399 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, and is closing in on breaking the single-season rushing yards record. He needs only 157 yards to snap the 37-year-old record, something East’s Jaylen Warren is in hot pursuit of as well.

Alta isn’t a one-man wrecking crew though. Quarterback Will Dana has completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,003 yards and 36 touchdowns this season. His top targets are Zach Engstrom, Landon Maxfield and Hayden Harrison.

“Josh Davis is no secret, he’s going to be a key factor in what we’re trying to do this week, but we have other weapons on offense as well,” said Alta coach Alema Te’o. “Will Dana does a good job of distributing the ball to our receivers so hopefully we can find some holes and get as many guys in the offense as we possibly can so Josh doesn’t have to do too much.”

Regardless of who touches the ball, Benson said tackling will be key.

Highland narrowly beat Hillcrest in the first round last week, 21-14, and Benson said tackling was his team’s Achilles' heel in that game.

“We have to tackle a whole lot better than we did last week, we had a very poor performance in tackling last week. That’s kind of been our focus and our stress, we’ve got to make sure we wrap that kid up and get pressure on their quarterback,” said Benson. “Going against a kid like Josh, you have to be cognizant of what he can do if you miss tackles.”

Davis has accounted for many of Alta’s big plays over 40 yards, including a couple on special teams.

Alta’s defense faces a tough challenge of its own against the triple option. It’s only seen the offense one other time back in Week 2 against Hillcrest, but that exposure is beneficial as it prepares for Highland’s offense.

“Playing against a triple option team it’s all about assignment football. For us, we harp on making sure we’re aligned properly and making the right reads,” said Te’o, who has 10 years of experience coaching against Highland when he was an assistant coach at Bountiful

“We fared well from time to time, but it’s not an easy offense to defend especially the way he does it and the kinds of kids they bring to the table.”

Quarterback James Pembroke leads Highland in rushing this season with 909 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Jake Boren and Lilo Clark have combined for 1,091 yards and 11 TDs.

Highland statistical breakdown

Scoring offense: 32.5 ppg (6th in 4A)

Scoring defense: 17.9 ppg (6th in 4A)

Passing leader: James Pembroke (58-119, 48.7%, 732 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs)

Rushing leaders: James Pembroke (127 carries, 909 yards 13 TDs), Jake Boren (49 carries, 636 yards, 5 TDs), Lilo Clark (76 carries, 455 yards, 6 TDs)

Receiving leaders: Elijah Shelton (16 rec., 256 yards, 3 TDs)

Tackles leaders: Caden Hilborn (40 tackles), Lilo Clark (39 tackles), Izzy Vaifoou (38 tackles)

Sack leaders: Izzy Vaifoou (4 sacks)

Interception leaders: Trayton Keyes (2 INTs)

Alta statistical breakdown

Scoring offense: 50.5 ppg (1st in 4A)

Scoring defense: 26.2 ppg (15th in 4A)

Passing leader: Will Dana (191-275, 69.5%, 3,003 yards, 36 TDs, 5 INTs)

Rushing leaders: Josh Davis (229 carries, 2,399 yards, 27 TDs)

Receiving leaders: Zach Engstrom (47 rec., 806 yards, 10 TDs), Landon Maxfield (25 rec., 617 yards, 7 TDs), Hayden Harrison (35 rec., 487 yards, 5 TDs)

Tackles leaders: Zach Alsop (78 tackles), MJ Tafisi (74 tackles)

Sack leaders: Mata Hola (12.5 sacks)

Interception leaders: Zach Alsop (4 INTs)

Felts Facts for Highland High School

All-time record: 409-229-3 (60 years)

Region championships: 15 (1958, 1959, 1961, 1963, 1986, 1987, 1988 co, 1996, 1997, 2003 co, 2004 co, 2005 co, 2006 co, 2007 co, 2009)

Playoff appearances: 43

Current playoff appearance streak: 34 (1983-2016)

All-time playoff record: 55-37

State championships: 5 (1959, 1961, 1963, 1989, 2010)

State championship record: 5-4

Most played rivalry: 59 meetings with East dating back to 1957. Highland leads 34-25.

Felt’s Factoid(s): Highland holds the record for biggest comeback in state history. Down 28-0 to Bonneville in the second quarter of a 1995 playoff game, Highland scored 31 straight points to win 31-28. … Nate Orchard (then Fakahafua) amassed 200 receiving yards in helping Highland to the 4A state title in 2010 - one of only two players to have at least 200 reception yards in a state championship game.

Felt’s Facts for Alta High School

All-time record: 268-158 (39 years)

Region championships: 12 (1984 co, 1985 co, 1988 co, 2000 co, 2003, 2005 co, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 co, 2011, 2016)

Playoff appearances: 31

Current playoff appearance streak: 20 (1997-2016)

All-time playoff record: 44-26

State championships: 4 (1983, 1988, 2007, 2008)

State championship record: 4-2

Most played rivalry: 38 meetings with Brighton dating back to 1978. Brighton leads 21-17.

Felt’s Factoid(s): Alta had scored in a school-record 126 straight games stretching back to 2002 before being shut out at Bellevue, Washington, in Week 4 in 2014. … Vance Bingham kicked a season record 17 field goals in 2009. In 2007, the Hawks captured the 5A crown by holding Layton to minus-9 rushing yards, the fewest in a championship game since 1979.

Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: