Mighty Horns Gorge Bulldogs

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In state tournament semifinal gridiron action Friday evening at Mesa College, Payson's methodical 27-6 trouncing of Safford muzzled the Bulldogs' barking and sent the caged canines home yelping.

The only way they'll have kennel-side seats for Saturday's Class 3A state championship is as paid ticket-holders.

With the stoic victory, the Payson Longhorns earned a berth in high school's "big show" 7 p.m. Saturday at Mesa College opposite four-time defending champion Blue Ridge.

The Longhorns' appearance in the state championship clash will be Payson's first since the 1981 team won the Class B state crown.

In whipping Safford, the Horns jumped out to a 27-0 lead, replaced the starters with reserves, then coasted through a scoreless fourth quarter.

The Horns have run up bigger victory margins this season -- 69-0 over Miami, 74-12 vs. Camp Verde, and 52-0 against Globe -- but even those wins weren't as one-sided as the triumph over Safford.

Strong on "O" and "D"
Paced by the running of Timmy Bunting (86 yards) and Cable Morris (66), the Horns ground attack ground out 226 yards. In comparison, the Horns defense, led by inside linebacker Jimbo Armstrong and down lineman Jason Hilgendorf, handcuffed Safford for a paltry 25 yards on 18 attempts.

Through the airways, Horn quarterbacks Kyle Conway and Hunter Walden completed 8 of 15 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown. That touchdown came with 8:02 expired in the first quarter when Conway lofted a seven-yard scoring aerial to Z-back Josh Barnhart.

Safford quarterback Trent Blake, harassed all evening by an aggressive Payson defense, finished with seven completion in 26 attempts for 61 yards and one touchdown. That TD came with less than three minutes remaining in the game against a bevy of Longhorn reserve D-backs.

The Horns' coaching staff had much earlier whistled the dogs off the Dogs

The ineptness of Safford's offense was never more evident than in the fourth quarter when the team was scratching for a rally. In the stanza, the Dogs executed only one running play for two yards, saw Blake sacked for an eight-yard loss and filled the airways with 15 aerials, only two of which were successful.

With the Horns offensive running on high octane, and the defense thoroughly controlling the line of scrimmage, Payson ramrodded its way to 354 yards of total offense. Safford struggled to only 86.

The Horns punted twice, Safford eight times.

Good news
The domination was obvious from the get-go, but one facet of the game that brought huge grins to the faces of coaches and fans alike was penalties -- or lack thereof.

Throughout the course of the campaign, the Horns have drawn tickets quicker than a speeder on the Beeline with 114 penalties for 1,049 yards.

But Friday evening, Payson flagged a season-low four times for a minuscule 15 yards.

If the Horns are to be at full efficiency against Blue Ridge Saturday evening, the team will probably have to repeat the almost penalty-free evening shown against Safford.

MASH unit
Because of a leg injury and team rules which prohibit players who miss practice from starting, Walden -- who's been the Horn first-line QB for three seasons -- was on the sidelines at kickoff Friday evening.

Junior Kyle Conway got the starting nod and took the team on a game-opening scoring drive capped by the TD aerial to Barnhart.

Walden relieved Conway after the second Horn offensive series and played three-plus quarters passing for 121 yards and rushing for 19 more.

Conway returned in the fourth quarter.
Following the game, Walden said he was at full speed, looking forward to the championship encounter, and would not be limited in this week's practices.

On the bad-news front, senior Jimmy Canez -- a starting cornerback and top punt returner -- injured a knee on a return and his status is in doubt for Saturday. Canez was walking gingerly after the game but assistant coach Jack Morris says his availability is uncertain until he is examined by medical personnel.

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