If comparative scores mean anything in prep football, which they sometimes don’t, the Round Valley Elks (1-1) are favorites over the Payson Longhorns (1-2) in tonight’s East Region opener in Eagar-Springerville.
The edge goes to the bugle boys because they defeated an opponent, St. Johns, which the Horns lost to.
Payson kicked off the 2009 season Aug. 28 with a 19-7 loss to the homestanding Redskins.
A week later in Springerville-Eagar, the Elks shocked the two-time defending 2A state champion Skins 29-26, ending St. Johns’ 26-game winning streak.
In the White Mountains, tongues continue to wag in watering holes, filling stations and barbershops about Round Valley’s stunning come-from-behind victory.
In the final 47 seconds of play and no timeouts remaining, the Elks drove 74 yards in six plays with junior signal caller Chantz Davis hooking up with wide receiver Rulon Udall in the end zone with 0:06 remaining to score the winning touchdown.
Rendering the win even more impressive is that the Elks were without one of their standouts — middle linebacker and tight end Jonny Slade, who broke his foot in RV’s season opening 28-14 loss to Winslow.
Slade is not expected to play tonight against Payson.
If the Longhorns are to improve their record to the break-even mark with a win over the Elks, defensive coordinator Byron Quinlan’s bandits must find a way to contain RV’s vaunted aerial circus.
Which means, Quinlan can opt to pressure White into mistakes and misreads with stunts and blitzes or Payson defenders can fall back into a contain-type zone scheme in which the backs try to keep everything in front of them.
Or Quinlan could choose a combo defense, sometimes blitzing and other times containing.
“We’ll mix it up a little bit and try to keep them off balance,” Quinlan said. “They obviously like to throw and we’ve been struggling (in the defensive backfield).”
Whatever the choice — pressure, contain or combo — the Horns are facing a talented quarterback who in just two games has completed 23 of 48 passes for 352 yards and four touchdowns.
If the RV gunslinger has a flaw, it’s making mistakes — he’s thrown three interceptions and fumbled twice, but recovered both.
Rendering Davis exceptionally lethal is that he has three sure-handed receivers in Phillip Ulibarri, Duskin Donaldson and Udall.
Also, the Elks’ offensive schemes are based on deception and Horn defenders must read and react quickly and stay at home on their assignments if they are to slow the attack.
“They run a shot gun, trips (three-receiver side) and motion to the trips side,” Quinlan said. “We’ve also seen draws, screens, double tights and counters, so we have to not be fooled.”
First-year head coach Matt Mayo is also anticipating some trickery, “RV has run two different offensive sets in two games, we will have to wait and see what we get.”
Possibly one of the reasons for the Horns’ struggles among the defensive backs is the loss of Ridge Halenar to graduation.
Last year on the Horns’ road to the state championship and an undefeated season, Halenar, playing safety, was the defense’s field general that directed traffic and seemed to always be in the right place at the right time.
Quinlan is hoping someone will step up to fill the void created by Halenar’s departure.
Defensively, the Redskins are led by Justin Taylor, Donaldson and Rance Allen, who took over at Mike, or middle linebacker, when Slade went down.
The good news for the Longhorns is that Max Johnson and Brandon Alexander are expected to return to the lineup after sitting out last week’s 42-24 loss to Mingus.
Payson will be, however, without the services of defensive end/tackle Tanner Clawson who is on the injured list.
Payson Herring is another player on the sidelines with the potential to greatly improve the Longhorns’ fortunes.
Last year he was a vital cog in the Horn offense and on special teams, but left PHS during the summer only to return a few weeks ago.
Once his transfer paperwork is cleared, he could rejoin the team.
Meanwhile, Alexander could be the help Quinlan is scrambling for among the defensive backs. He’s a heady, speedy player armed with the moxie learned during last year’s 14-0 season.
If Quinlan uses him on defense, he will probably play free safety alongside strong safety Westin Gibson.
The return of Max Johnson to the strong side, or Sam, linebacker slot should also bolster the Horn defense.
Offensively, Gibson is expected to be calling signals for the Longhorns tonight with Nick Johnson lined up at fullback and possibly Alexander at tailback.
Last season, Alexander was the Horns’ leading rusher and was at his best in the Horns’ double overtime state championship win over Blue Ridge.
Fans are clamoring to see him regain his previous running form and help crank up a ground game that has been inconsistent most of the early season.
The outcome of tonight’s game is crucial to both teams for at least two reasons.
First, this is the first game of the season that power points will be awarded and it is those tallies that are used to seed the top 16 3A teams into the state tournament.
Second, this is an East game with region championship hopes at stake. The team that loses has dug itself a deep hole in the race for the East title.
But, probably most important for the players is that small town Arizona pride and bragging rights are at stake and no teenager relishes being outplayed by a rival they’ve gone toe-to-toe against since their Little League days.
Kick off tonight is 7 p.m.