We have made it to the final weekend of Idaho high school football and it is championship weekend. There will be six new champions crowned this weekend, a crown awarded in each one of the six classifications in Idaho.
Thankfully, there is a Bingham Country team that has made it to this game and it is none other than the Firth Cougars, just a few miles north of Blackfoot and who will be playing the West Side Pirates in a game at 3 p.m. for the 2A crown on the new field at Madison High School in Rexburg.
This is a great matchup, especially if you like games that feature an upstart underdog taking on the big bad team that is the reigning champion and appears to be unstoppable in this game. The "brother" so to speak who 90% of all fans in Idaho have already crowned as this year's 2A state champion.
A closer look at both Firth and West Side may give you a different look at the game and the potential champion.
The season for both teams began back on Aug. 28, when they met at Firth High School. That is when the youngsters from Firth took on the defending Idaho state champions in the first game of the year. Firth featured a team that was loaded with freshmen and sophomores and only had a handful of juniors and seniors who suited up for the game.
“Over half of our roster was freshmen and the sophomores that we had were playing their first varsity football game ever,” senior Taedyn Jacobsen said. “Players who were in key positions were starting on offense and defense that night and they had never even seen a varsity game, let alone played in one.”
The defense set the tone with a stop on the first series of the game and took the ball the length of the field at the hands of sophomore quarterback Gage Vasquez and just like that, the Cougars had put points on the board and led 6-0.
The team was still celebrating the score when the Pirates took over the ball and drove it the length of the field and took the lead 7-6.
Silence descended across the field at Firth at how quickly the Pirates were able to turn things around and the realization that they were suddenly in a game with a bigger, stronger and maybe even faster team hit the young Cougars like a Mike Tyson punch to the face. (Mike Tyson has been known to say that everybody has a chance in a mismatch, until that first punch hits you square in the face. That is when things change.)
That is what it was like for the Cougars, that first punch in the face from the Pirates changed everything. Gone was the early momentum, gone was the sudden confidence that the Cougars had gained from their quick score in the first quarter of a game at the start of the year.
What followed was some mistakes on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball that put the Pirates in enviable positions and they began to take control of the game and they did so with dominating football and in a scary way.
Before it was all over, the Pirates had won the game 33-6. It was easy to say things like, "Well, we scored first” or “I guess they are as good as they were a year ago,” or anything else that goes through the minds of a group of young men who had just gone through something that they didn't expect nor even thought was a possibility. The Cougars knew they were a good team, but now the coaches needed to build them back up and show them just how good they really were.
That came the very next week, when the Cougars met with Soda Springs and physically proved to be too much for the Cardinals, beating them by a score of 48-0. A win over Bear Lake followed by the score of 40-19 and the Cougars had faced and conquered a fairly good team in the Bears, setting up the second big matchup of the year when the Cougars were forced to travel to St. Anthony to face the Cougars of South Fremont.
Firth battled throughout the game and when they had the lead in the fourth quarter, they found out that they had to learn how to finish games. Just a week prior, South Fremont had demolished Aberdeen and coach Jeff Duffin of Aberdeen commented that the South Fremont quarterback might just be the best quarterback in the state.
Firth found that out the hard way. Trying to nurse a fourth quarter lead to the final buzzer led to a couple of big plays by South Fremont against the youngsters from Firth and a shocking loss in a game that the Firth boys thought was won. They learned a valuable lesson that day and that was that you have to finish every game you play in.
The Cougars then ran off wins against Ririe, West Jefferson, and Salmon to give themselves some additional confidence and set up a game for the Nuclear Conference title against North Fremont, who was undefeated at the time.
The Cougars came out and scored early and that may have been the worst thing they could have done against North Fremont. It came too easy and a false sense of security flowed over the Cougars.
The Huskies may have had the Cougars just where they wanted them as they drove the length of the field in a very few number of plays and pushed across a touchdown and just like that, the Cougars were behind, 8-6. A quick turnover gave the ball back to North Fremont who promptly scored and just like that, the score was 14-6 and for all intents and purposes, the game was over for Firth. The final may have only been 22-6 and the Cougars did show some fight in the fourth quarter, but an undefeated regular season was in the hands and control of the Huskies.
Firth showed they were resilient as they came back in the first week of the playoffs and downed Malad by the score of 40-0, sending them to the second round of the playoffs against an old foe in Bear Lake.
Bear Lake has a good quarterback, but then again, the Cougars have a good defense and while there were a few anxious moments in the stands, the Cougars held the game in hand and simply beat the Bears at their own game, 30-20. Just like that, the Cougars were in the semifinals, guaranteed of a trophy and a fate no worse than third in the state. In the post-game huddle, the players voiced that they hadn't done anything yet, there was still work to do and even though the opponent was the unbeaten North Fremont Huskies, a team that had downed the Cougars a few weeks earlier, they were confident that they were going to turn the tables on North Fremont this time around.
Now nobody could have foreseen that the game would be played in a driving snowstorm that required snow plows to remove snow from the hash marks and sidelines and end zones repeatedly during the game, but that is what happened.
The two teams battled the elements and each other for a good part of the game before North Fremont pushed the ball across the field and into the end zone, giving the Huskies a 6-0 lead and they began to work on the clock. Firth kept on battling and finally, appearing to run out of gas, the Cougars found themselves on their own 13 yard line with the Huskies threatening to put the game away.
That is when senior Taedyn Jacobsen found a way to scoop up the ball on a fumble and began heading the other way.
Jacobsen is no speedster, but he is a three-position first team all-conference player (tight end, linebacker and kicker) and the farther he went down the field, the more blockers he picked up as the faster Cougars were building him a wall down the sideline and he just kept on running. He finally ended up in the end zone, tying the game at 6 points each, with the point after touchdown remaining.
Clearly out of breath, but living on adrenaline, Jacobsen very calmly kicked the ball through the uprights to give the Cougars the lead at 7-6.
That is how the game ended a few minutes later, after the Huskies had used every means possible to stop the clock from running and the Cougars stood tall on defense to claim the win and avenge the loss of four weeks earlier against these same undefeated Huskies on the Firth Cougars' field.
The opponent was yet to be named, but everyone knew that it would be West Side, the defending state champions who were unbeaten on the year. What they may not have anticipated is that the Pirates would be pushed by Declo and that the final score would be 7-0.
That is where we are now, waiting for the Saturday afternoon culmination of the 2A football season for both teams. The game will be played at Madison High School and will kickoff at 3 p.m.
These two teams are very familiar with each other, facing off during the regular season every year in what has become the season opening tradition.
This year definitely belonged to West Side, but the course of the season has presented some holes in the vaunted offense and defense of the Pirates.
By now, everyone knows that West Side downed Firth in the opening game of the year 33-6, but the Cougars did score first in that contest, so they know that they can get on the scoreboard.
The two teams are eerily the same, having both been built from the defensive side of the ball and then having the offensive parts to the game put into place.
West Side is probably bigger, especially up front, but the Cougars are probably faster, especially in the defensive backfield, where cousins Gage and Alex Vasquez roam, intercepting passes and recovering fumbles and getting to the end zone with regularity. They are both three-sport athletes and accomplished at what they do. Both are all-conference performers, with Gage being named as first team on both offense and defense. Both are fast and have scored numerous touchdowns this year and have a competitive nature that pushes the other to his best.
Alex plays football, wrestles and plays baseball. He made it to the state wrestling championships as a freshman a year ago and has been a two-year starter in football and will be in baseball this spring.
Gage plays quarterback and cornerback in football, is a defending champion in wrestling and plays baseball as well. In fact, Gage has scored on the ground, through the air, on kickoff returns and interception returns this year in football. Both Vasquez boys are only sophomores so great things are expected of them and either one is capable of turning a game around with their play.
Firth also has the Defensive Player of the Year in the Nuclear Conference in Athan Blonquist who is currently tied for the most quarterback sacks in the nation. Blonquist has 32 sacks currently with this game to go. His dominance has turned things around for the defense.
“Blonquist has been the difference for us on defense,” Jacobsen said. “When he started to learn the position and started getting the sacks, our whole defense got better. He has made the difference.”
The entire defense is dotted with all-conference players and those who can make the difference.
It is no different with West Side, although both teams have similarities and differences that the other team will try and exploit.
Firth averages 25 points per game on offense and 12 per game on defense.
West Side averages 32 points per game on offense and only a shade over five on defense.
West Side had three close encounters, games where they won by a score of 7-0 (against Declo last week and against Bear Lake and a 14-7 game they won in overtime against Marsh Valley).
Firth lost three games this year, to North Fremont, West Side and South Fremont) They had the lead in all three games at one time or another.
Defensively, Firth also had four shutouts, against against Soda Springs 48-0, against West Jefferson 14-0, against Malad 40-0, and against Ririe 21-0.
Unless one team or the other can get a big offensive output, it is likely that the game will be in the low 20s and that the team that makes the fewest mistakes will come out on top. The team with the best chance to create turnovers is Firth, so an edge goes to the Cougars.
The team most likely to eat up clock is West Side, so an edge there to the Pirates.
The most explosive offense is a tie as both can grind the ball out, but Firth has more speed and the Pirates can just wear you down with the running game. Edge there to West Side.
Speed goes to Firth who can beat you from anywhere on the field at anytime. Edge there to Firth.
Experience goes to West Side, who has been there and done that.
Skill positions are a toss-up.
Sheer ability may go to West Side.
Pretty even game all in all with it being anybody's game and that means it may come down to momentum from the start to the finish.
For Firth to win, they will have to get a good start and score on both offense and defense.
For West Side to win, they must keep the ball away from the Cougars and their fast offense and they must control Gage Vasquez when he is on offense.
The little tangibles will have to be won by Firth if they are to pick up another state championship this year. In either case, the Cougars will be one of the favorites to win it all next year. West Side is the favorite to win it this year. Something will have to give, one way or another.
I am going to side with Firth, a team I have followed all season long and who has that little something that just might be the difference when it is all said and done.
Firth 24, West Side 22 in a barnburner from start to finish.