WEST VALLEY CITY — There’s no cure for offensive playoff jitters quite like defensive and special teams touchdowns.
Westlake’s defense generated six turnovers and scored twice to complement a 90-yard kickoff return touchdown in the first half to spark a 35-23 Thunder win over Hunter in the first round of the 6A playoffs Friday night.
“We preach running to the ball. We preach creating turnovers,” Westlake defensive coordinator Viliami Halasima said. “They played with that mindset today.”
Westlake’s offense struggled out of the gate with errant snaps from under center and on a punt attempt turnover, leading to a short field for Hunter. The Wolverines took advantage and opened the scoring with a 22-yard field goal from kicker Josh Harding.
From there, Westlake’s defense took over, first with a 40-yard scoop-and-score fumble recovery touchdown from defensive tackle Spencer Heimuli to give the Thunder a 7-3 lead with 8:27 left in the first quarter.
Safety Cooper Cowan pitched in with another score on an ensuing Hunter drive, picking off Harding and rumbling for a 70-yard touchdown to round out the first quarter.
Watch replay: Westlake 35, Hunter 23
Hunter’s offense found daylight late in the second quarter after a poor Westlake punt when Harding tossed a lateral to running back Omarion Jackson, who then heaved it 30 yards to wide open receiver Nathan Suaste in the end zone to make it 14-10 Westlake.
Westlake wide receiver Brayden Perry answered back immediately with the 90-yard kickoff score, though, and the Thunder nabbed the fourth Harding pick of the first half to maintain a 21-10 lead at the break.
Neither team gained a foothold offensively in the second half until the beginning of the fourth quarter when Hunter dug back into the bag of tricks for another long touchdown pass. This time, Jackson tossed it back to Harding, who found a streaking Jorden Miller with a 35-yard scoring strike.
With Hunter closing the gap, two-way impact player Kanyon Lee rose to the occasion for Westlake, grabbing Harding’s fifth and final interception to steal momentum back.
“For him to step in and get a pick for us and swing it back our way, that’s players making plays,” Halasima said.
Lee capped his impact defensive play with a 5-yard scoring scamper on the ensuing Westlake possession to make it 28-17 with 5:16 left in the game.
“We decided that we needed to show up and come dominate in the second half,” Lee said. “We came out and we did that and played good offense.”
Harding marched Hunter down the field in response, finishing it himself on a 5-yard rushing score, but Lee slammed the door shut with a 54-yard scoring romp in response to ice the victory.
Region 4 opponent and juggernaut Corner Canyon awaits, a game that Halasima knows will present a host of new challenges.
“We know what type of offense we’re facing in CC,” Halasima said. “We’ve just got to play sound football because we all know that’s a great football team.”