Trailing Blue Ridge 8-6 late in the third quarter and in possession of the ball at the Yellow Jacket 34-yard line, the Payson Longhorns were primed to pull off the biggest upset of the prep football campaign.
But the Horn's offensive drive fizzled on a fourth down short yardage play and Blue Ridge took over on downs.
Buoyed by the return to the lineup of star running back Adam Moro who had not played in the previous two games due to a groin injury Blue Ridge scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to salvage a 29-6 win over the Longhorns.
Although Moro played a role in the resurgence of the Yellow Jackets by rushing for 57 yards in nine carries, the Horns were their own worst enemy, losing two fumbles and committing several costly penalties.
Payson's loss, which occurred Thursday evening in the second round of the state tournament played at Mesa College, wrapped up the season for the Longhorns (6-5).
The Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, advance to the state semifinals to begin at 5 p.m. Friday at Mesa College. Blue Ridge's opponent, Wickenburg, advanced with a win over Ganado.
The other state semifinal match, to be played at 8 p.m. at Mesa, will pit third-ranked Snowflake against second-ranked Coolidge. Snowflake, the East region runner-up, advanced to the semis by whipping Wilcox 29-23 in a quarterfinals game played Friday evening at Mesa.
Also on Friday, Coolidge was a 27-21 quarterfinal winner over Parker.
Rising to the occasion
Entering the state second-round game between Payson and Blue Ridge, the Yellow Jackets were deemed to be sure winners of the clash. Some around the state predicted the Yellow Jacket victory margin would exceed 60 points.
After all, Blue Ridge (11-0) had beaten the Horns 64-0 Oct. 19. Blue Ridge was the defending state champion. And Blue Ridge was top-ranked in the state coaches' poll.
Although few gave the Longhorns much chance of pulling off an upset, it was obvious after the third play of the game that the Horns had brought their game faces.
On the third play, the Horns executed a hook-and-ladder trick play that had worked for touchdowns in two previous wins over Show Low and Santa Cruz.
By now, Payson fans know the play all too well. It begins with quarterback Ky Bradley tossing a short pass in the flat to wide receiver Nate Perna. As soon as Perna hauls in the aerial, he laterals to halfback Waylon Pettet who is speeding nearby. Once Pettet has the ball in tow, it's turn out the lights for the defense.
Against Blue Ridge, the play covered 69 yards and gave the Horns a surprising 6-0 lead.
The fans' enthusiasm was dampened when Chad McRae missed the extra point kick.
About three minutes after the Horns' score, Blue Ridge answered with an eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a 24-yard scoring run by Richard Kjellsen.
A fake extra-point kick turned into a pass from Paul Ensman to Matt Garcia that produced an 8-6 Blue Ridge lead.
Throughout the second and third quarters, Payson dominated the game, racking up a sizable advantage in total offense.
Most of Payson's offense came from fullback Levi Armstrong who finished with 92 yards on 20 carries. His bull-like rushes into the heart of the Yellow Jackets' defense kept Blue Ridge off balance.
When Armstrong wasn't banging his way upfield, he was serving as a decoy for cousin Waylon Pettet, who was running sweep plays around end.
Pettet finished with 82 yards on 11 carries but had at least one nice gain called back on penalties.
Although Payson dominated the line of scrimmage during the second and third quarters, the team could never post the go-ahead points the reserve players were cheering for from the sidelines.
During the periods, the Horns were also playing without the services of wide receiver/safety Nate Perna who suffered a knee injury early in the game. Perna watched the second half from the sidelines in street clothes.
A hint of more bad things to come occurred late in the third quarter when hard-nosed nose guard Sean Pickle had to take himself out of the game due to what turned out to be a concussion.
"I want to help my team out there, but I'm hurting them," he bellowed while crouched in pain on the sidelines. Throughout the game, he had proven to be a thorn in the Yellow Jackets side running down backs from behind and pressuring the Jacket quarterback on pass plays.
Following the game, Pickle was examined by doctors and treated for a concussion, coaches said.
The heated contest turned Blue Ridge's way with 9:16 left in the fourth quarter when Ensman scored on a one-yard run.
Because the conversion kick failed, the Horns were only a TD and two point conversion away at 14-6.
The upset hopes and dreams of Payson faithful were all but extinguished with 4:08 remaining in the game when Alex Moro scored on a two-yard run and Seth Crozier toed the extra-point kick.
After recovering a Horn fumble, the Jackets tacked on an insurance TD on a 17-yard pass from Alex Moro to Toby Elkins.
With the season at an end, the players will await the results of coaches' voting that selects the All-East team. Senior members of the squad are eligible to participate in the Arizona Coaches Association North vs. South All-Star game when it is contested next summer in Casa Grande.
Those players are chosen at the conclusion of the Class 5A season in early December.