There was a time when Longhorn football boosters would have looked at the 2009 schedule and believed tonight’s game against Fountain Hills was a breather.
Those mistaken thoughts would have occurred in early September just after the Falcons lost their first two games of the year, 27-21 to Wickenburg and 9-6 to Estrella Foothills.
But no one in prep football circles any longer harbors the opinion the Falcons are pushovers.
That is because Fountain Hills is on a four-game winning streak that includes a very impressive 32-27 victory Oct. 2 over then-No. 2 ranked Show Low. That loss was the first of the season for the Cougars.
Fountain Hills also dealt Florence its first defeat of the campaign, beating the Gophers 25-13 on Sept. 18.
Fountain Hills’ turnaround can be partly due to the return of Conner Brinton (No. 14) and players who were suspended for the first three games.
In Fountain’s winning streak, the team has also bested Globe 49-9 and Santa Cruz 20-0.
SC is the only common opponent the Horns and Falcons have faced thus far this season.
The Horns beat SC 42-7 on Sept. 25.
Fountain Hills coach Jim Fairfield is expected to bring to Payson a team that operates very similar to the one the Horns faced last season. It featured a variety of looks including trips (three-receiver sides), double tights, shot gun, empty backfield and some motions.
However, the base offense is similar to the Wing-T with added gimmicks that can make it confusing to Payson defenders.
Particularly tough are the bootlegs and waggles that can leave defensive backs caught between trying to defend the pass or come up for run support.
Fountain Hills is led offensively by senior running back Beau Hilgemann (No. 45) who has rushed for 669 yards on 141 carries.
In the win over Show Low, he was the Falcons’ workhorse picking up 136 yards in 23 carries.
Against Florence, Hilgemann rushed 30 times for 127 yards.
While Fairfield seems to love to pound the ball on the ground, he’s not hesitant about going to the airways.
In the win over Show Low, quarterback Rainer Greenstreet (No. 12) went to the airways 12 times, for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
He might have thrown even more, but Fountain Hills was sitting on a 26-6 halftime lead and Fairfield was probably content to run out the clock on the ground.
Greenstreet is also billed as a decent run threat, which is a real plus for a Wing-T signal caller.
Defensively, Payson’s offensive line and blockers must find a way to detour the Falcons’ Alex Forehand (No. 63) who has been in on 39 tackles, 26 of them solo, and has two sacks, four pass deflections and one caused fumble.
One of the weaknesses the Horns might want to take advantage of is in the Falcons’ punting game. Mike Degroote (No. 40) is averaging only about 27 yards per punt and has a longest of just 38.
If Degroote doesn’t improve tonight, the Horns could enjoy good field position most of the game.
The keys to Payson being successful offensively will be to play ball control and avoid the three-and-outs that plagued the team in last week’s 31-0 loss to Snowflake.
The team’s inability to pound the ball downfield is puzzling to onlookers partly because the offensive line has several good-sized, talented and seasoned players led by Logan Garner (5 feet, 9 inches), Schaffer Keith (6 feet, 1 inch, 284 pounds) and Mason Dacanay (5 feet, 10 inches, 290 pounds).
When former coach Josh Anderson left Payson last spring to accept a coaching job at Dakota State University, he predicted that the line would be a force in 2009 even though it lost two of its stars, Matt Wilson and Bryan Burke, to graduation.
In fact, defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes said last spring the under classes were filled with talented players eager to take over the limelight.
If the “O” linemen control the line of scrimmage and open holes for the Horns’ stable of running backs, including senior Brandon Alexander, Payson could ride sustained, time-consuming, mistake-free drives to victory.
The return of speedy running back Payson Herring, who suffered a hip pointer in the loss to Snowflake, will play a role in Longhorn chances for a win.
He gives PHS a shifty break away threat both on offense and special teams.
The Horns must also improve an anemic passing game that was almost non existent in the loss to Snowflake — passing for a miniscule three yards with three interceptions, one of which was returned for a Lobo TD.
First-year head coach Matt Mayo has played musical chairs with his quarterbacks, rotating Westin Gibson and Jake Sleeper most of the season.
Only time will tell if he has settled on one or will continue to rotate the two.
A final key to a Payson victory is the psyche of the individual players.
It’s no secret they are suffering big time through one of the program’s most frustrating seasons and there is some discontent. But that’s to be expected with a 2-4 record, 0-2 in the East and disheartening blowout losses to Round Valley (34-6), Mingus (42-14) and Snowflake.
Rendering the Horns’ plight even more disturbing is that those ugly defeats come on the heels of big-time expectations that the 2009 team had the talent and experience to continue the winning tradition of last year’s state championship season.
In preseason polls, Payson was ranked as high as second in the state.
Confidence, love of the game, the right vision and accountability are the most important ingredients in a successful football program.
If they are missing this season, they must be re-discovered for Payson to return to the success it once enjoyed.