COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — High school football is back, and with it comes optimism about what the season could become for each team.
For a team like Brighton, it's an opportunity to show off their new offensive weapons and intimidating defense. And for Pleasant Grove, it's a chance for young players to get their first taste of varsity football and a new head coach to leave his mark on the program.
That new coach for the Vikings is Taylor Walkenhorst, who takes over for one of the state's longest tenured coaches in Mark Wooten. Walkenhorst played high school football in Utah before going off to coach at Carlsbad High in Carlsbad, California. He returned to the Beehive State for a chance to coach the Vikings with a physical-minded culture that he has previously admired from afar.
That physical culture was on full display in the first quarter of Friday night's game against the Bengals as the Vikings struck first with a 10-0 lead to open the game. Their first drive took nearly seven minutes of game time, which was punctuated by a 1-yard touchdown run from junior running back Jaden Wright with 5:18 remaining in the first quarter.
The Bengals struggled early on to contain young Vikings quarterback Nic Staffieri. The junior quarterback had success on designed rollouts in the first half to get a bevy of Vikings receivers involved.
Brighton, however, was not held in check for long and rattled off 21 points in the second quarter. Junior running back Kace Gurr was the first to find the end zone for the Bengals as he ripped off a 30-yard touchdown run — courtesy of great blocking by the offensive line — to trail 10-7 in the second quarter.
But the biggest touchdown of the game for the Bengals came courtesy of All-State senior linebacker Lander Barton, who is expected to enroll at the University of Utah after high school. The Vikings had the ball deep inside Bengal territory and looked to extend their lead. The ever-versatile Barton lined up at defensive end when he realized Staffieri was going for the quick slant. Barton halted his rush and pulled down a leaping interception after the ball was deflected high into the air.
He then turned and ran toward the Bengals end zone. Only one player, Staffieri, stood between Barton and the defensive touchdown, but he shook him off on his way to a 95-yard pick-six to give the Bengals the go-ahead score, 14-10, with 4:43 to play in the third quarter.
"I'm honestly pretty spoiled that they (coaches) let me line up anywhere, but it's fun," said Barton, who would not have been able to make the play had he been lined up in his traditional linebacker position.
From Barton's interception on, it was all sophomore quarterback Jack Johnson. He threw four touchdown passes over the final 25 minutes of game action, and the Bengals defense only allowed one touchdown in the second half to give the Bengals a dominating 49-24 season-opening win.
"Overall, I thought he did a really good job of getting the ball out to where it needed to go, and we put a lot on our quarterback's shoulders as far as operating the offense," Brighton coach Justin Hemm, who is entering his third season with the Bengals, said. "I'm excited to see how he and the rest of our team grow week by week."
Even in the win, Barton said the team needed to improve going forward, particularly with early-game penalties and "crucial errors." Had they done that, "that score will look a lot different."
"We need to be more disciplined," he said.
Hemm, though, was impressed with the way his team battled in their first test of the season.
"We knew we were going to face adversity, and I loved how our kids responded after a rough start," he said. "I also really liked how we came out with energy in the second half and really executed better."
The Bengals (1-0) will travel next week to Syracuse to take on the Titans while Pleasant Grove (0-1) will travel to Maple Mountain to take on the Golden Eagles.