The Union High School cheering section traveled from Vancouver to Puyallup’s Sparks Stadium on Saturday night, and hung a sign off the railing that read, “So nice we did it twice.”
It was a playful jab, of course referring to last season’s meetings — once in a regular-season showdown between title-contending programs, and once in the Class 4A state semifinals — when the Titans twice edged Puyallup.
The Vikings took notice.
“It was a real motivator,” Puyallup running back Kyler Johnson said.
They also made sure two losses didn’t turn into three, this time coming out on the good side of a 42-41 contest that was decided on the final play.
Here are five takeaways from the midseason thriller:
Everything you need to know about Puyallup, you learned on the game-winning drive
Puyallup coach Gary Jeffers had some flashbacks to last season — the Week 5 stunner, when the Vikings lost to Union on a 2-yard stretch by Nile Jones with 15 seconds left, and the heartbreaker in the semifinals, when reigning state player of the year Lincoln Victor broke Puyallup with a decisive 16-yard scamper inside the three-minute mark.
The Vikings had fourth-quarter leads in both games. And they did again Saturday — by three touchdowns early in the period — until they didn’t.
“We’re trying to keep our kids from having flashbacks — that whole, ‘Oh here we go again,’ kind of thing,” Jeffers said.
“It was kind of similar to last year, but we just told everyone to keep their heads down, keep on grinding and just stick with it,” linebacker Danny Uluilakepa said.
When the Titans tied the game at 35-35 with 5:33 remaining, the Vikings didn’t panic. Instead, they marched methodically down the field, rushing seven times for 36 yards, and drawing a 15-yard personal foul penalty, to set up in Union territory.
Then Johnson — who played limited snaps the first four weeks with a minor knee injury — took a pitch from quarterback Luke Holcomb on a trick play, and hurled a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Dwyer.
“That’s our home run play,” Johnson said. “We love that play. We knew if we had to pull it out, we’d use it.”
After Union punched with three consecutive touchdowns to tie the game, Puyallup’s rally for the game-winner showed late-game resolve that never quite came through in the last two meetings.
“It’s all about overcoming adversity, man,” Jeffers said. “That’s what the game of football is about. That’s what we talk to our kids about all the time. When it goes your way, and that lesson can be learned in completion with success, that’s awesome.”
Victor, Darien Chase and other big-time playmakers are gone, but Union still has that late-game magic
Never count the Titans out. For as many impressive athletes as they graduated after last year’s state title run — Victor, who is now at Hawaii, Chase, who is at Nebraska and JoJo Siofele, who is at Portland State, among others — they still have plenty to work with.
After Puyallup took a 35-14 lead with 57 seconds left in the third, Union answered within two minutes. C.J. Jordan connected with Tobias Merriweather on a 57-yard pass on third-and-4 to set the Titans up in the red zone. Vinh Luong eventually punched in an 8-yard score.
The Titans forced a Puyallup punt, and put together a two-minute drive to cut the lead to one possession on one of Jordan’s three rushing touchdowns.
Then came the biggest momentum shift. Union kicked off, Puyallup let the ball roll near the Titans’ sideline, and sophomore Liam Boyce slid to recover the ball. Isaiah Jones punched in the 3-yard score for Union on the next play to make it 35-35.
“Hey, I love it,” Union coach Rory Rosenbach said. “That is fun, buddy. That is fun.”
When the Vikings took the lead again, Jordan led Union on another quick scoring drive. He hit Merriweather for 16 yards on a crucial fourth-and-3 that set the Titans up at the Vikings’ 5.
Jordan was sacked, and threw two incompletions. His pass on fourth down as time expired was also batted away, but offsetting penalties allowed one untimed down. Jordan again connected with Merriweather for the 7-yard score.
The Titans opted to go for the win, but a block in the back penalty on the conversion try backed them up. A 35-yard extra point try from Sonny Pitts fell short left, and Puyallup’s sideline spilled onto the field.
“It was crazy,” Uluilakepa said. “It’s been leading up to this ever since last year (when) we lost. Everyone knew we were coming back this year, and we were just going to put on.”
Puyallup has an intriguing running back tandem
Last season, Kyle Cramer churned out nearly 1,600 yards for the Vikings as their primary back before he graduated.
Against Union, Isaiah Dickerson and Johnson — who appeared in the back field for the first time since Week 1 — shared the majority of the carries, and it worked beautifully.
“It’s hard for a defense to adjust between the two runners,” Jeffers said. “It’s a good one-two punch.”
Dickerson collected a team-high 86 rushing yards on 16 carries, and punched in a pair of touchdowns on runs of 7 and 1 yards.
Johnson added 80 yards on a season-high 18 carries, and two touchdown runs of 1 and 7 yards. He also tossed the 29-yard game-winning touchdown to Dwyer.
Uluilakepa can do it all
As a junior, Uluilakepa led the state with 182 tackles, and is projected to be an inside linebacker in college. He currently holds Division I offers from nine schools, including Utah State and Eastern Washington, among others.
He finished with 11 tackles against the Titans, but perhaps his biggest moments came on offense when he converted a pair of needed third downs on Puyallup’s winning drive.
When the Vikings needed to convert a third-and-2, Uluilakepa gained 10 yards. When they needed to convert a third-and-3, he barreled forward for five, dragging several defenders with him.
“He does so many good things for us,” Jeffers said. “He makes the run game go when he’s in there as a blocker, too. It’s a nice change up.”
Holcomb progressing as Puyallup reaches halfway point
The third in a trio of quarterbacking brothers, Holcomb uncorked perhaps his best performance in his first year as a starter against another respected program. And the Vikings now have a 4-1 record during his tenure.
Holcomb finished an efficient 20-of-29 passing for 213 yards and a touchdown. After tossing two interceptions against Sumner two weeks ago, and one against Graham-Kapowsin last week, he kept the ball safely away from Union’s defenders.
“Luke did a really nice job for us,” Jeffers said. “We’ve been working really hard all week trying to bring him along, and I thought he did a great job tonight.”