SALT LAKE CITY — The West Panthers were in the hunt for an upset as they hosted the undefeated Kearns Cougars Friday night.
The game was sloppy early as both teams turned the ball over three times in the first half, but the Cougars were able to hold a slight 14-10 lead after two quarters. In the second half the Panthers cleaned up their mistakes — the Cougars did not — and came out on top with a 26-17 upset win for West.
The game was tied early in the fourth quarter when the Cougars got the ball, but they were pinned back in their own territory. Disaster struck as a high snap lead to a game-changing safety gave the Panthers its first lead of the game. Following the safety, the Panthers got the ball back with 6:31 remaining in the fourth and were able to control the clock through the ground.
Running back Johnny Alo and the West offensive line moved the chains time and time again as they marched all the way to the 1-yard line. On fourth down, do-it-all receiver Clarence Bird Butler ran it into the end zone to put the Panthers up 26-17 with only 17 seconds left in the game.
"This win feels great for our community as they’ve been going through a lot lately," Panthers head coach Olossa Solovi said, saying he was proud of the way his team fought and believed the win was bigger than what happened on the field. "We got hit hard by COVID earlier in the season and to come out on top means a lot to our kids."
Alo, too, said he was proud of the way his team battled and knows it will be a win he and his teammates will not soon forget. "It feels wonderful, taking out a top dog team being the underdog is a great feeling. We fought until the end and never gave up which allowed us to come out on top."
Things did not start out positive for the Panthers as they fumbled the ball at midfield on their first drive of the game. A few plays later running back Naki Leha punched it in from the 5-yard line to give the Cougars a quick 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
The very next position the Panthers attempted a fake punt in their own territory but turned the ball over on downs. Luckily for the Panthers, the Cougars would also go for it on fourth down, only to turn the ball right back into the Panthers' hands.
Huge stops by the West defense were what kept them in the game early, and their impressive performance did not go unnoticed by Solovi.
"Our defense made a lot of great stops and they really kept us in it in the first half. Our defensive coordinator, Bryant Masian, had a great game plan and our boys played a great game tonight," he said.
In the second quarter, West quarterback Karson Lopati was picked off by Cougars corner Dominic Thornton. The Cougars offense once again cashed in on a short field when quarterback Iosefa Toia’ivao tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to his fullback Joe Alusa to give them a 14-0 lead with 10:07 remains in the first half.
Down 14 with less than two minute remaining in the half, things looked bleak for the Panthers; but that quickly changed after Lopati hit his receiver Sesi Vailahi for a 62-yard touchdown pass to put the Panthers back in the game.
With just over a minute remaining in the first half, the Cougars hoped to drive down the field and put some points on the board, but that chance was snatched away by Butler, who picked off Toia’ivao pass and returned it into Cougar territory. This set up a 47-yard field goal for Yahir Estrada, which he nailed to put his team down 14-10 going into the half
The Panthers' first drive of the second half once again ended in a turnover when Cougars linebacker Jack Kelly picked off a Lopati pass and returned it into Panther territory. This set up a 27-yard field goal to put the Cougars up 17-10 halfway through the third quarter. It would be the last time the Cougars would score as the West defensive front stifled the Cougars offense.
The Panthers were able to respond after the field goal with Butler taking a 17-yard screen pass to the house to tie the game at 17 a piece with 3:32 left in the third. The game stayed tied until the costly Cougar safety that helped West pull off this big win.
Next week, West (6-2) will travel to West Valley City to take on Granger Lancers (3-4). Kearns (7-1) will look to avenge their loss when they travel to face the Cyprus Pirates (2-6).