High school football: Manti shocks the defending champs to claim its first-ever 3A state championship appearance

HERRIMAN — All gas, no brakes.

That’s the philosophy Manti coach Fred Taukei’aho said his team had going up against the defending state champion Morgan Trojans Saturday in the 3A state semifinals.

Manti’s offense, led by one of the state’s best quarterbacks, did enough to keep the Trojans at bay, and Manti’s defense delivered the performance of a lifetime as the Templars shocked Morgan, 35-21, to advance to their first state championship game since 2013.

It’s the first time Manti will be in a 3A title game in school history. and the win also halted a streak of four straight 3A title game appearances by Morgan.

“We’re not there yet. We got one more game, but to get here is a community effort by these boys, their parents, the administration, everyone,” Taukei’aho said. “We’ve had one goal, to take it one game at a time.”

After Morgan had beaten the Templars twice in the past two seasons by a total score of 84-0 (all of which was in first halves), Taukei’aho knew and fully expected that part of Manti’s rise almost had to include beating its demons against the Trojans.

“Morgan’s the pinnacle of all programs for us,” Taukei’aho said. “The way they’ve beaten us the last few years, we knew we had to be like them, and we had to beat them to be the best.”

Junior quarterback Maison Starkweather, the most prolific quarterback in Manti school history and one of the state’s best this season, completed 25 of 38 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers.

As Morgan’s defense honed in on Starkweather usual favorite target, senior Hunter Stevens, he found a golden connection with sophomore Stone Mortensen, who caught three passes for 102 yards and two TDs, the second of which was a thrilling catch under tight defense in spite of defensive pass interference.

“I played against these guys last year and got my butt kicked, so this feels great,” Starkweather said.

For all of Morgan’s dominance over years of 3A competition, Manti surprisingly struck first and with ferocity, building a 21-0 in the first half to put the Trojans on the ropes.

Morgan, who had grown perhaps too accustomed to winning, was now playing for its life.

Morgan senior QB Beck Sheffield completed 15 of 32 passes for 173 yards, two TDs and an interception thrown to Manti senior Reggie Frischknecht in the first quarter.

He was also sacked seven times.

After Manti built up the lead at halftime, Morgan awoke in a big way in the second half, largely by cleaning up its own mistakes, and began to move the ball with a heavy amount of urgency. The Trojans finally got on the board with 5:43 remaining in the third quarter on a 19-yard touchdown pass to Lincoln Gilson.

That touchdown ignited a furious rally in which the Trojans scored touchdown on three straight possessions, the second of which was a 1-yard run by Sheffield.

After his TD run at the 11:57 mark of the fourth quarter, kicker Beau Johnson delivered a beautifully ninja-like onside attempt that Christian Nunez gunned through the special teams unit to recover.

Just two minutes later, the Trojans capped off their 21-7 scoring run with an 11-yard TD pass to Tate Nelson, turning a Manti blowout into a 28-21 nailbiter in less than seven minutes.

Up against the wall themselves with the now completely rejuvenated defending champs staring them down, the Templars turned to their motto:

All gas, no brakes.

That turned into a much-needed response drive in which Starkweather completed pass after pass to keep the Templars offense on the field, culminating in a virtually game-sealing touchdown run by junior Isaac Crowther from 2 yards out.

“I know we could run the clock, but that’s out of the norm of what we do,” Taukei’aho said.

The Templars will face off against No. 1 Richfield for the 3A state championship next Saturday, a team that frustrated the Manti offense in the regular season in a 28-7 loss, but with a week of preparation and a knowledge of what the Wildcats are, Taukei’aho is confident it will be a very different game.

“We have to get back to the film,” Taukei’aho said. “It’s been a long time since then.”

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