Executing a football-perfect wishbone offense, the St. Johns Redskins put an end to the Payson Longhorns' 14-game winning streak with a 40-8 victory Friday evening in St. Johns.
The Horns, now 1-1-1 on the season, entered the game with a lofty set of credentials --the Class 3A second-ranked team and defending state champions.
But when the final gun sounded in the tiny Apache County capital, it was the Redskins who won bragging rights of being one of the state's best small school football teams.
After watching St. Johns run roughshod, PHS assistant coach Jack Morris said, "I don't know how there could be any better team in either (2A or 3A) conference. Maybe only (No. 1 ranked) Blue Ridge is as good."
St. Johns' triumph -- coupled with Class 2A No. 1-ranked Thatcher's win over 3A No. 5-ranked Safford two weeks ago -- leaves little doubt that at least for this season, the smaller conference is the more competitive.
When coaches and pollsters gather to compile the new top-five rankings, they might be hard pressed to sort out the best 3A teams.
Certainly Blue Ridge will hang on to the top slot after whipping No. 4 Show Low (2-1) 48-0 Friday in Lakeside.
But who'll be No. 2?
Not Payson, in light of the lopsided loss to St. Johns. Coolidge (2-1) is a possibility, but the Bears dropped their season-opener to Blue Ridge.
Safford is currently No. 5, but has a tie to Payson and a loss to Thatcher.
Unranked Globe, who surprised Snowflake two weeks ago and whipped Arizona Boys Ranch 52-0 Friday, could jump into the spotlight. Class 3A newcomer Chandler Seton whipped Chino Valley 36-6 Friday and could be a contender.
Back to the drawing board
Payson coaches and players probably prefer to leave the rankings to the pollsters and instead focus on correcting the miscues that led to the team's stunning downfall in St. Johns.
Defensive coordinator Mike Wheelis' bandits gave up a whopping 404 yards rushing, 154 of them to Redskin running back Afton Lambson.
When Lambson wasn't battering the Horn D, Josh Raban (98 yards), Jason Bingham (61 yards) and quarterback B.J. Garcia (88 yards) were doing their share of damage. Raban rushed for three touchdowns, one of which was a 30-yard romp with 11:35 remaining in the second quarter that upped the Skin lead to 20-0.
With less than three minutes remaining in the quarter, Bingham tacked on another TD that allowed St. Johns to enjoy 28-0 halftime cushion.
With Round Valley on the horizon Friday evening in Payson as the East Division opener, Wheelis will have to find a way to shore up the Longhorn run defense.
The key to finding success against Round Valley might lie on the line of scrimmage, coaches say.
If the Horn linemen can take control and dominate there -- which they didn't do against St. Johns -- Payson will have a much better shot at opening divisional play with a W.
With St. Johns controlling the football for most of the game, the Horn offense struggled to get on track.
In 35 rushing attempts, the Horns netted a paltry 85 yards.
Through the airways, 13 aerials netted only 43 yards.
With the offense sputtering, Payson's only touchdown came from the defense when Dusty Brockett scooped up a Redskin fumble and rambled 48 yards to pay dirt. The return, which came with 5:15 remaining in the game, coupled with Tim Bunting's successful two-point conversion run, closed the count to 34-8.
About three minutes later, the Horns were threatening to score again to render the final tally a bit more respectable, but Redskin defensive back Butch Neilson put an end to Longhorn hopes when he stepped in front of an errant Kyle Conway throw intended for Brockett running a post corner route. Neilson returned the interception 95 yards for a touchdown that sent St. Johns' faithful into a frenzy.
In jayvee action Thursday evening in Payson, the Horns edged past the St. Johns underclassmen 14-13 with the help of a successful two-point conversion by Steve Williamson.
Another key to the win, head jayvee coach Jack Morris said, was good defense and the passing combination of Ky Bradley to Jeremy Greenburg.
In freshman action, running backs Waylon Pettet and Waylon Quotsquva fueled the unbeaten Horns to a 25-0 victory.
Varsity game time Friday against Round Valley is 7 p.m.
Both the freshmen and jayvees will travel to Eagar Thursday for games at 4:30 and 6 p.m. in the Round Valley High School dome.