Shrewd coaching and a bit of luck propelled the Longhorns to what might be the team's biggest win since Payson defeating Blue Ridge in the 1998 state championship.
Switching Waylon Pettet to safety from cornerback and Wickenburg's two dropped screen passes that appeared likely to go for touchdowns highlighted the Longhorn's 37-15 win over Wickenburg.
In front of a raucous home crowd Friday night, Pettet anchored the Longhorn defense with a team-high eight tackles. He also contributed two interceptions that killed Wickenburg drives.
Sept. 6, in a season-opening win over St. Johns, Pettet played cornerback and was matched man-on-man against the Redskins' best receiver.
During the practice week, defensive backs coach Mike Loutzenheiser mulled over switching Pettet to free safety where he would have more room to roam. That decision proved wise when Pettet stepped up to lead the defensive charge against the Wranglers.
Wickenburg entered the game as one of the favorites to reach the state championship. Last year, the team won the West division championship and advanced to the state title game where it lost a 28-0 decision to Blue Ridge.
Friday night, the Wranglers didn't appear to be of championship caliber. In fact, they might have been their own worst enemy. In addition to the two dropped screen passes that were superbly set up, the Wranglers fumbled four times (lost one), had three interceptions and committed several mental miscues that stalled potential drives.
On just the second play of the game, Wickenburg jumped to an early lead on scat back Brian Herrington's 64-yard romp to pay dirt. Herrington toed the extra point to give the Wranglers a 7-0 lead.
At halftime, Wickenburg clung to a precarious 15-13 cushion.
Like the Longhorns did in the win over St. Johns, the team rallied in the second half for a stirring victory.
The rally got off to a jump start with 5:55 remaining in the third stanza when quarterback Nate Perna capped a 12-play, 74-yard drive by hooking with tight end Mike Barr on a 12-yard TD aerial.
The two-point conversion attempt was good and Payson led for the first time in the game 19-15.
In fourth quarter action, Payson padded their lead with touchdowns from Tyler Williams and Billy Bob Hoyt. Williams was the Horns' workhorse throughout the night. The stocky sophomore fullback, who gets most of his yardage between the tackles, rushed for 124 yards on 23 carries.
Pettet, playing halfback in the Horns' Wing-T offense, led the ground game with 158 yards on 18 carries.
Perna fueled the Horns' aerial attack completing four of 10 passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively the Horns were led by Layton Howell, Jake Swartwood and George Coleman. Howell and Swartwood finished with four tackles each and Coleman had three. Derek Daniels contributed two tackles and an interception.
Payson controlled the ball for 25:39 and churned out 423 yards in total offense. Wickenburg had the pigskin for 22:21 and managed 342 yards of offense.
With Payson averaging 7.2 yards per play and Wickenburg posting a 7.1, the clash might someday be featured in both teams' season-ending highlight videos.
The win over the Wranglers might also propel the now fifth-ranked Longhorns to even greater heights in the several prep polls that are compiled.
Prior to the loss to Payson, Wickenburg was rated third in the 3A ranks. In other conference games played Friday, second-ranked Globe lost 42-33 to Coolidge and fourth-ranked Snowflake had to rely on a last second field goal to beat Class 2A Phoenix Christian 31-29.
Defending state champion and No. 1 ranked Blue Ridge thumped Parker 34-6
Next up for the Horns are the Holbrook Roadrunners. Game time is 7 p.m. Friday in Holbrook.
In freshman and jayvee games Sept. 12 in Wickenburg, Payson's plebes hog-tied the Wranglers 48-0 and the Horn junior varsity won 27-0.
Sept. 19, the freshmen will host Holbrook at 4 p.m. A jayvee game will kick off at 6:30 p.m.