Longtime football statistician Bill Lawson, who’s probably eyeballed more Payson High showdowns than anyone, summed up the Longhorns’ 32-21 win over Show Low by saying, “it wasn’t pretty, but the best team won.”
The former school district administrator was on target with his assessment of the East Region opener played Oct. 3 in Show Low.
The Horns sleep-walked their way to a first half 21-13 deficit looking more like a team simply trying to stay in the playoff hunt rather than one with a state second ranking and itching for a 3A title.
“We were lucky to be down just 21-13,” coach Josh Anderson said. “We were missing PATs, lining up wrong on defense, killing ourselves with penalties and missing tackles.
“Basically we just played flat out stupid football the first half.”
Much to the credit of the players and staff, the team righted its sinking ship in the second half by shutting out the defending state champion Cougars 19-0.
“Their offense did not get past the 50 (yard line) — they did not come close to scoring,” Anderson said. “Our kids started reading their keys, making sure of their tackles and firing off the ball.”
In the win, however, the Horns had to survive two lost fumbles, 119 yards in penalties and four TDs called back, three in a row from the 30-yard line.
As Lawson said, the Horns weren’t at their best, but the PHS arsenal featured enough firepower for the team to crank out five TDs and 365 yards in total offense.
Conversely the Cougars picked up 258 yards on the ground and through the airways.
Most importantly, the victory keeps the state second-ranked Longhorns (6-0 overall and 1-0 in the East) unbeaten and tied with Blue Ridge (6-0; 1-0) for first place in the East Region standings.
The Yellow Jackets kept pace by whipping Alchesay 49-14. The Falcons are now 4-2 overall and 0-1 in the East.
In another region game, Round Valley (5-1; 1-0) whipped Snowflake (4-2; 1-1), 40-19.
With Show Low’s loss to the Horns, the Cougars are 3-3 and 0-1.
Small in stature, big in heart
The Longhorns are known around the 3A conference for having one of the biggest teams in the history of small town Arizona football.
The starting offensive linemen tip the scales at 297, 284, 232, 265 and 227 pounds.
But as big as the Horns are, it was 5-foot-5-inch, 143-pound Payson Herring who stole the show in Show Low.
The sophomore running back’s 72-yard punt return for a TD with 7:20 remaining in the third quarter pulled the Horns to within 21-19.
Late in the fourth stanza, he scored what would prove to be the winning touchdown on a 40-yard quick dump pass reception from quarterback Ridge Halenar.
In the second quarter, the sophomore scat back kept the Horns in contention scoring on a 45-yard TD sweep.
“He had a great game,” defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes said.
Anderson agrees, “He had a breakout game and was our biggest asset on offense.”
Payson also received a solid offensive effort from senior fullback David Carlen who lit up the scoreboard on a 36-yard run in the first quarter and tacked on an insurance TD in the fourth on a 3-yard run.
Defensively, Tyler Savage paced Hayes’ bandits with 12 tackles, seven of which were unassisted, and a sack for a 15-yard loss. Bryan Burke and Schaffer Keith also had sacks.
Nick Johnson was in on eight tackles and recovered a fumble. Halenar, playing safety, had eight tackles and defensive lineman Matt Wilson chipped in with six solo takedowns.
Carlen, the East Region tackling leader, finished with just four tackles mostly because he was double- and triple-teamed most of the evening.
“But that allowed the other linebackers to have good games,” Hayes said.
Gunslinger in town
The Horns will put their unblemished record on the line Oct. 10 when the team hosts Round Valley in PHS stadium.
The pass-happy Elks present a unique challenge to Hayes and his charges in that senior quarterback Hayden Eagar has thrown for 1,464 yards this season. That mark is almost three times more yards that East runner-up Jordan Hunt of Snowflake has passed for.
Eagar’s favorite targets are T.J. Peters and Trey Walker, both seniors. Peters has 464 yards in receptions and Walker has 413 yards.
With Eagar, Peters and Walker on the field, Horn boosters could be in store for an aerial circus the likes of which haven’t been seen since the “Air Coryell” flying machine tickled the gridiron delight of San Diego Charger fans.
Kick off against Round Valley is at 7 p.m.
“Round Valley is going to be very tough as usual,” Anderson said. “All I can say is that I’m happy to be playing them at home for the first time in my career at Payson.”