Across 13 years at Skyline, Scott Berger has learned several ways to keep his players calm in the days ahead of big matchups. Usually, he offers an incantation that puts the opponent in perspective, some way to contextualize the other team and help his players realize they aren’t playing the Monstars from Space Jam.
Here’s an example: Sometimes, when the club is preparing to face a dual-threat quarterback, Berger will ask his players, “Is he the state 100 meter dash champ?”
“And 99 percent of the time,” Berger said, “you can say no, he’s not.”
Ahead of Skyline’s 7 p.m. road date with Thunder Ridge on Friday, Berger and the Grizzlies are preparing to face the 1%.
Thunder Ridge quarterback Tao Johnson won the 5A state title in the 100 in May, making him — quite literally — the fastest kid in the state. He’s a blur on the track and on the field, where he speeds past anyone who dares flush him out of the pocket. He’s got an arm, to be sure, but Johnson’s blazing speed is what separates him as a quarterback.
In the Titans’ win over Blackfoot last week, Johnson logged 10 carries for 70 yards, including two short touchdown jaunts. But he also ripped off two rushes of 20-plus yards and two that covered more than 10. He didn’t always have to scramble — Johnson also completed 17 of 29 passes for 245 yards — but when he did, he used his quickness to make the Broncos pay for their pressure.
So the challenge for Skyline, which is coming off a last-second 16-15 defeat to Utah’s Green Canyon last week, will be finding ways to keep Johnson contained. Outside of a couple late mistakes, the Grizzlies’ defense dazzled in that game. But that’s what makes this challenge so unique: Johnson poses problems his opponents have literally never seen.
“It’s just something you have to be aware of as far as pursuit angles,” Berger said. “You’ve got to try to contain him. You can’t just let him take off running.”
In recent years, Skyline had few issues taking on similar tasks because the team employed the personnel it needed. Playmakers like Karsen Jensen, Cooper Owen, Brixton Gilbert and Adrian Alvarez patrolled the Grizzlies’ defense, making it difficult for opponents to leak out on broken plays.
Those players have all graduated, though, as have many of Skyline’s offensive pieces: Quarterback Cade Marlow and receivers Eli Ames and Connor Maloney, who used their shiftiness and quickness to make the Grizzlies’ offense one of the best in the state.
So now, Skyline is entering a new era. Junior Lachlan Haacke has taken over the quarterback spot, but he’s throwing to receivers like Kenyon Sadiq and Abrahn Silverio, both of whom became de facto starters by the end of last season. In fact, one of the Grizzlies’ touchdowns last week came on a touchdown pass from Haacke to Sadiq. The other came from junior Caden Taggart.
Still, the Grizzlies came away from the game feeling like they didn’t quite turn in a complete performance.
“We got into the red zone a couple times and didn’t put it in,” Berger said. “So we’ve talked about that.”
On the other side, Thunder Ridge is fresh off an offensive outing that left little to be desired. Absent a few throws that sailed wide or outside, Johnson shined in his senior season debut, connecting with an array of receivers: Ryan Johnson, Zak Hanson, Tanner Storer, Elijah Johnson, Jaden Sautter, Porter Brizzee and Paul Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-4 Utah State commit who wreaked havoc on both sides of the ball. On one of the first plays of the second half, Johnson zipped a ball 20 yards downfield to Fitzgerald, who snatched it over a defensive back and jogged the remaining 40 yards into the end zone.
That’s a long way of saying the Titans have depth, especially now that they are playing with their first class of seniors who started their freshman years at Thunder Ridge, which opened in 2018. They’re reaping the benefits by the bushel, and most start with Johnson and Fitzgerald.
Only one of those guys is a threat to run and pass, though. The outcome of Friday’s game will likely hinge on whether the Grizzlies can keep Johnson under wraps.
“If you can keep him in the pocket and make him throw on time, then we’ve got our chance,” Berger said. “But if we’re chasing all Friday night, then it could be a long night.”