A 38-yard touchdown pass with 1:03 remaining in the game lifted the Longhorns to a 26-22 regular season-ending victory over Grand Canyon regional rival Flagstaff Sinagua.
The Nov. 7 showdown in Flagstaff represented the regular season finales for both teams. Throughout the skirmish in the northland, the Mustangs (2-8, 0-5) put on a show of true grit the team's fans had not witnessed this season.
Entering the game, Sinagua had lost five consecutive games by a combined score of 85-0. The last time the Mustangs had scored was Oct. 13 in a 47-13 loss to Centennial.
With the victory, Payson improved to 8-2 overall and 3-2 in the region. The team's record is a huge surprise for some fans who predicted Payson would not fare well during its first year in the 4A conference.
Last spring in an AIA realignment, PHS was moved to the 4A conference because its student body count exceeded the 3A maximum. Payson's enrollment has now dropped below the 3A maximum and the school is the smallest in the 4A conference.
McRae leads charge
If it hadn't been for the pass receiving of Mark McRae, the Longhorns might have been looking at a seven-win season rather than eight.
In addition to the winning TD reception, the senior wide receiver hauled in a 40-yard scoring strike with 1:42 remaining in the first half. The catch cut Sinagua's lead to 7-6. McRae wrapped up the evening with four catches for 96 yards.
Following McRae's winning TD reception, the Mustangs got the ball back at their own 35 yard line with 56 seconds remaining in the game. Sinagua got off one successful pass play -- 24-yard effort -- to make things interesting for both teams. Moments later, however, time ran out on Sinagua.
At halftime, the Mustangs led by a single point thanks to a 42-yard TD run by Justin Bundy with 2:58 remaining in the first quarter. The Longhorns situation turned even more fraught in the third quarter when Sinagua took a 14-6 lead on a one-yard run by reserve quarterback A.J. Mansene.
Payson came roaring from behind to score a pair of TDs on two short runs by hard charging junior fullback Tyler Williams. Thanks to those runs, Payson held a 19-14 lead when play opened in the fourth quarter.
Sinagua received a huge break early in the stanza, when linebacker Kurt Simpson pilfered an errant Wilbanks pass at the Payson 49-yard-line.
With 6:28 remaining, Bundy scored the go-ahead touchdown on a five-yard run. A successful two-point conversion attempt upped the Mustang lead to 22-19 and set the stage for McRae's late heroics.
If there is a tell-tale statistic in Payson's struggle, it was the team's inability to generate a potent ground game.
In 29 rushing attempts, the Horns churned out only 66 yards.
With 23 yards on eight carries, junior tailback James Gibson was the Horns' leading ground gainer.
Sinagua piled up 227 yards on 47 attempts.
Through the airways, Wilbanks completed nine of 23 passes for 231 yards, but was intercepted four times.
Sinagua had 122 passing yards.
Most often, season-ending games are played penalty free because both teams are at the top of their game and tuned into the officiating expectations. Going against the norm, 15 infractions were flagged in the clash. Sinagua was ticketed nine times for 63 yards. The most costly was a 56-yard TD pass called back on a holding penalty.
Payson was penalized six times for 40 yards.