Mighty Horns Take On Cougars In Mesa

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What will it take for the Show Low Cougars to pull off the upset of the Class 3A Arizona State football tournament and whip state second-ranked and Central Division champion Payson (10-0) Friday evening at Mesa College?

That depends on which side of the Mogollon Rim you live.

In the White Mountains, they're saying a perfectly executed game plan will produce a victory for the felines.

In the Rim country, they're saying the cats don't have the claws to so much as scratch the Horns.

No matter where you live, it's easy to see the Cougars enter the fight with some impressive credentials including a 9-1 record, East Division runner-up honors and a state fourth-place ranking.

The green and gold's only loss was to state top-ranked and four-time defending state champion Blue Ridge. But no team has beaten the Yellow Jackets in 65 consecutive games.

If underdog Show Low is to survive in the state tournament Friday, the coaching staff will have to find a way to run the team's wing-T quick trap directly at 300-pound noseguard Blair River and then beat inside linebackers Jimbo Armstrong and Ryan Lorentz.

That's a huge order to fill - almost no one has been able to do it successfully this season. River is tough to move and Lorentz and Armstrong are the team's two leading tacklers.

Eloy and Coolidge both scored 14 points against the vaunted Horn "D" but it was Arizona Boys Ranch's ground game that gave Payson the most trouble.

The Spartans punctured defensive coordinator Mike Wheelis' 52 monster alignment for a season high 211 yards.

However, ABR boasted of two talented backs, Julius Wortham and Andre Phillips, that few Class 4A or 5A running backs can match.

If River and company can stop the inside game, the Cougars will look to sweep usually to the short side of the field. Then it's up to the Horns' outside to contend with ends Justin Davis and Craig McClanahan.

When the cats go to the air, often on the bootleg to the wide side, they'll face a formidable defensive backfield that includes Jeremy Hoff, Brian Cork, Jason Carroll and Jimmy Canez.

Even those who live East of the Mogollon Rim say the Cougar offense is facing an uphill battle against a Longhorn defense that has given up only 85 points this year.

If the SL offense is unable to move the ball and keep the pigskin away from the potent Horn offense, it could be lights out in Cougarville.

Engineered by senior quarterback Hunter Walden, the "O" has a record five games in which it scored more than 50 points.

Junior Timmy Bunting has been one of the Central Division's best running backs rushing for a team high 819 yards.

Bunting sometimes shares tailback duties with senior Cable Morris who's rushed for 453 yards despite missing part of the season due to an injury.

Morris also plays fullback - the position he earned postseason honors at last year - and there he is an invaluable, bone-crushing blocker for Bunting. Just ask Blue Ridge all-stater Robert David who Morris took out on the first play of a state tournament quarterfinal game in 1997.

When Walden has gone to the airways his two favorite targets have been wingback Josh Barnhart (14 receptions, 194 yards) and tight end Marc Bennett (9 receptions, 233 yards).

The high-powered offense and rock-solid defense of the Horns have been tough for opponents to deal with since the season opened Sept. 5 in Chino Valley.

However, if the team does have an Achilles heel, it is penalties.

The Horns are rapidly approaching the 1,000-yard mark in tickets and in a close game, that could prove a tough obstacle to overcome.

Game time for the Horns today, Friday, is 5 p.m. In other state super eight games, Safford plays Parker at 8 a.m. at Mesa.

At Glendale College, Ganado takes on Cactus Shadows at 5 p.m. and Coolidge challenges Blue Ridge at 8 p.m.

Should the Horns survive the Cougar threat, the team would advance to a Nov. 20 game, also at Mesa, against the winner of the Safford vs. Parker match.

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