A football-crazed crowd packed Payson High School stadium Friday evening to cheer two state-ranked teams that sported the talented quarterbacks and receivers necessary to turn the clash into an all out aerial circus.
The air game ultimately earned the Longhorns a 6-6 tie against the visiting Safford Bulldogs, but the contest was anything but a display of passing profiency.
Only seven of the two teams' 26 passes were completed, for a paltry 130 yards.
The break that earned the Longhorns the tie came with 8.6 seconds remaining in the game when senior quarterback Kyle Conway -- running a bootleg play -- hooked up with wide receiver Dusty Brockett. The TD pass covered 46 yards.
The score wasn't without some controversy. Among those who thought Conway was past the line of scrimmage when he uncorked the pass were the announcers from local radio station KMOG, who indicated over the airways that Conway had indeed passed the LOS. There was no flag on the play.
Safford coach Ken Guzik said Monday he didn't know if Conway was passed the LOS during the play, but after reviewing game films Monday morning, he believes it was an illegal forward pass.
"He was two, maybe three yards past (the line of scrimmage)," Guzik said.
The Safford coach also said that because there was a five-man crew officiating the game, "somebody should have seen something, but there's not anything we can do now."
Meanwhile, the Longhorns missed a golden opportunity for a come-from-behind win when the point-after kick by Jimbo Armstrong missed narrowly to the left -- possibly nicking the cross bar.
The Horns received a second chance to salvage a win after Safford fumbled the ensuing kick return and Payson recovered.
With less than a second remaining, Payson tried a last-gasp play, another bootleg pass that Safford stuffed by sacking Conway.
Safford's lone touchdown came with 11:02 remaining in the fourth quarter when quarterback Louis Rios hit wingback Everson Turner -- one of the conference's fastest players -- on a 23-yard scoring strike. The Dogs' conversion kick was also off target.
The teams entered the contest ranked among the state's best -- Payson held down the Class 3A second spot behind number-one Coolidge and Safford was fourth-ranked.
That the Longhorns played a highly regarded team to a tie was a plus for the team, PHS head coach Jim Beall said.
"Since I've been here, we've always played a weak team in the opener and this year we didn't -- that will help us," he said.
The performance of the Longhorns, which needs to be fine-tuned, also pleased Beall. "I'm pretty happy with it," he said. "We started the season decently and now we have to improve."
Some of the weaknesses he hopes to shore up are the kicking game and the lack of depth.
"We don't want to miss any more of those (conversion kicks) and we have to really work on our conditioning because we are down (in numbers) from what we have been in the past," Beall said.
This year, many of the athletes will be asked to play on both offense and defense. This is in contrast to last year's state championship season, in which the players, with few exceptions, played on one side of the ball.
Some good news for Payson came in the decision by Bryan Zumbro to return to the Longhorn fold. Zumbro was the team's starting center last year, but did not turn out for the team try-outs in August so he could devote more time to his budding baseball career.
Zumbro has apparently rethought his stand and will be at practices Monday afternoon.
The Horns won most of the statistical battles against Safford, racking up 189 yards in total offense to just 129 for the Bulldogs.
However, several failed scoring opportunities, especially in the early going when players missed their assignments, cost the Horns the victory.
Defensive coordinator Mike Wheelis' bandits, led by defensive ends Sterling White and Levi Armstrong, held the high-powered Safford wing-T offense to just 87 net yards rushing, thanks to more than 60 yards in losses.
The Horns' biggest test came from Everson, who ran 13 plays, mostly counters and sweeps, for 79 yards.
As the Dogs' trigger-man, Rios completed only two of eight passes and had one intercepted.
In the Horns' power option offense, fullback Justin Kaufmann led all rushers with 28 yards in eight attempts. Sophomore Levi Armstrong finished with 20 yards in six carries.
Z-back Dallin McLaws turned in a nifty 14-yard run in the first quarter but carried only twice for a total of 18 yards.
The Horns attempted 18 passes, which is a high mark for the team's ground-oriented offense, but completed just five for 88 yards. Conway was intercepted once.
As is the case in many season openers there were five fumbles. Payson recovered both its miscues but Safford retained possession on only one of its three.
Next up for the Longhorns are the Arizona Boys Ranch Spartans at 7 p.m. Friday in PHS Stadium.
Only a few years ago, when both teams were members of the now-defunct Central Division, that clash would have been a barn-burner with monumental consequences.
But this year Payson has moved to the East and ABR is in the South. The Spartans are also fighting legal trouble that has decimated the school's enrollment, rendering the game a skeleton of what it once was.
ABR has rallied from near-death to muster a handful of players.
"They'll be down from what they've been in the past," Beall said.
The Spartans will not have a jayvee team for the traditional Thursday evening game.
JV, frosh Horns win
In jayvee action against Safford, the Horns returned to Payson with a 30-20 victory, thanks in part to a stellar defensive effort from linebacker Steve Williamson, coach Jack Morris said.
The freshman team, behind strong running by a pair of Waylons -- Pettet and Quatsqueva -- copped a 50-0 victory.