A state tournament second-round row, pitting two-time defending state champion Coolidge against the Payson Longhorns, is likely to turn into a mêlée of old-fashioned smash-mouth football.
"Nothing will be more important than controlling the line of scrimmage," PHS second-year coach Josh Anderson said. "We'll continue to run right at opponents and we are not looking to change our game plan."
The clash will be played this evening, Friday, at Chandler Perry High School. Kick off is 8 p.m.
In Coolidge, coach Carlo Hernandez -- who has compiled an 86-12 record in eight years ago the school -- will counter with a strategy probably identical to that of Payson. Coolidge's run-oriented plan is due partly to the presence of Brad Jackson, one of the top fullbacks in the state.
The 5-foot, 11-inch, 210-pound senior is touted as having 4.5 speed and is heralded as an athlete who won't be brought down with arm tackles.
"He's a stud at everything he does," Anderson said.
Hernandez touts Jackson as an athlete who has the skills to play at the next level.
"We've had some interest from smaller schools and Colorado and Colorado State," he said.
"Some (recruiters) think he's undersized, but are attracted to him because he's such a hard-nosed kid," he said.
Horn fans can expect Jackson to run the traps and blunts out of the Bears Wing-T, that will also feature boots, sweeps, powers, waggles and counters.
Sometimes Jackson lines up at fullback and other times at tailback.
Most often, when the Bears go to an I-formation, Jackson will be at tailback.
In the Bears 32-13 state opening round win over Eloy Santa Cruz, Nov. 2 in Coolidge, Jackson lit up the Dust Devils for 161 yards rushing.
With that effort, he joined the exclusive 1,000 yard rushing fraternity, with a total of 1,198.
Payson's power option ground attack gains its momentum from fullback Nick Alexander on dive-and-trap plays between the tackles. The senior is the team's leading rusher, with 886 yards.
So, with two teams bent on running the ball down the opposition's throat, legendary coach Woody Hayes's conservative "Three-Yards-and-a Cloud of Dust" strategy could be the name of the game.
Although Hayes disdained the forward pass, saying, "There are three things that can happen when you pass and two of them are not good," Anderson and Hernandez are not likely to totally abandon the aerial game.
"We'll throw when we can and when we need to, but our strength is our run game with our big front line," Anderson said.
Hernandez has viewed several PHS game films and left the sessions impressed.
"They are well disciplined and work well together," he said. "They have all 11 (players) on the same page.
Through the airways
Pulling the trigger on the Longhorn passing attack will be junior quarterback Ridge Halenar.
Junior Charlie Garrett strong arms the Coolidge passing game that has accounted for 836 yards.
When Halenar goes to the airways, his main target will probably be wide out Tyler Savage, who has used his 6-foot, 4-inch frame to corral 28 passes for 380 yards and five TDs.
Halenar also will throw to Troy Brown, Shane Keith and David Carlen.
Hernandez's favorite target is wide receiver Kevin Mitchell, who has caught 20 passes for 204 yards and one TD.
Jackson is a receiving threat out of the backfield, having caught 22 passes for 172 yards.
In the battle for the line of scrimmage, which both coaches have deemed crucial, Coolidge has plenty of size with Clay Gillespie (6-foot, 2 inches, 220 pounds), Wyn Henderson (5-foot, 10-inches, 220 pounds, Rodney Reagans (5-foot, 10-inches 210 pounds and Derek Gonzales (5-foot, 10-inches, 200 pounds) available to carve out real estate.
But Payson counters with the largest line in school history and one of the biggest in the state, regardless of school size classification.
The linemen include Bryan Burke (6-foot, 5-inches; 211 pounds), Matt Wilson (6-foot, 6-inches, 250 pounds), Scott Andrus (6-foot, 2 inches; 263 pounds), and Kevin Conner (5-foot, 10-inches: 256 pounds).
The Horns grew even bigger at mid-season when 6-foot, 5-inch, 260-pound David Runyon transferred to Payson from Page.
"They are so big, if they get their mitts on you, it's over," Hernandez said.
"And they don't make many mistakes, they are not going to hurt themselves."
Although the Coolidge coach is impressed with what Payson has accomplished this season, he also lauds his Bears players as "kids with a strong work ethic who want to get better each week.
"The keys to our successes have been our consistency in coaches and kids with big hearts."
If comparative scores mean anything, which they usually don't, the two state quarterfinalists have met four common opponents -- Fountain Hills, Florence, Blue Ridge and Round Valley.
- Coolidge beat Florence 36-15 and Payson ran by the Gophers 48-7.
- Against Fountain Hills, Coolidge survived 28-6 and the Horns were victorious 28-19.
- Coolidge fell to Blue Ridge 43-14 and Payson lost to the Yellow Jackets 34-3.
- Round Valley ran by the Bears 21-14 in the season opener. At midseason, the Horns dropped a 26-23 heartbreaker to the Elks.
Coolidge (8-2 overall; 7-0 in the South) advanced to state as the region champion and a No. 3 seed.
Payson (8-3; 2-3 in the East) earned a No. 6 state seed.
In other state playoff games today, No. 7 seeded Round Valley takes on undefeated and second-seed Wickenburg at 5 p.m. at Perry High School.
At Mesa Community College, East region champion and No. 1 seeded Blue Ridge will face No. 9 River Valley at 5 p.m.
That game will be followed at 8 p.m. with a clash pitting No. 5 Show Low against No. 4 Winslow.
The victors in those games will advance to the final four, to be played at 5 and 8 p.m. Nov. 16 at Mesa College.
The state title game will kick off at 5 p.m. Nov. 24 at the University of Arizona in Tucson.