After watching a seemingly comfortable 14-0 lead evaporate and St. Johns jump ahead 21-20 in the fourth quarter, the Longhorns could have folded up their tents and gone home.
But quitting is not in the DNA of these Horns.
Instead of rolling over and conceding defeat, the Longhorns went on a gutsy 11-play, 50-yard drive that culminated at 2:58 remaining in the game with the winning touchdown.
Transfer fullback Clint Harper scored the TD on a two-yard plunge.
“Our kids battled through some adversity,” said coach Byron Quinlan. “There was no quit.”
With the hard-fought 26-21 win over the visiting Redskins on Aug. 27, the Horns (1-0) stamped themselves as a legitimate threat to earn a coveted seed into the postseason.
In retrospect, however, the final score of the non-region clash should never have been as close as it was.
Simply put, the Horns were much more than five points better than the 2A Skins.
Payson dominated most of the game, racking up 385 yards in total offense to 199 for the Redskins.
But St. Johns rallied on a pair of quick scores that began with 41 seconds left in the third quarter when kick returner Konner Lee returned Shade Eckhardt’s kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown.
Then with 11:39 remaining in the game, Andrew Madrid broke loose on a 71-yard scoring scamper that coupled with a successful extra point kick gave the visitors from Apache County the one-point cushion.
If Payson had not made the defensive and special team correctable gaffs that allowed the two quick scores, the Horns would have waltzed to at least a 14-point win.
To St. Johns’ credit, the team did churn out one determined drive that kept the PHS defense on its heels. The 16-play, 73-yard thrust ended with just seven seconds remaining in the first half with quarterback Aevan Thomas rushing 15 yards to a TD.
Following the game, Quinlan lauded the Redskins as a well-coached and talented team that will win the 2A North region title and once again contend for the state title.
“There is a reason they were ranked No. 1 in preseason,” he said.
Of Payson’s total offense, 266 of it came on the ground as the power option “O” averaged a very respectable 6.3 yards per carry.
While it was obvious Payson does have some talented thoroughbreds in the backfield to lug the pigskin, some credit for the running success must go to the workhorses up front who opened running lanes — not often gaping ones, but big enough to allow the slithery backs to slip through.
“Overall I was pleased with them,” Quinlan said. “Jake Gonzales (guard) and Sean Ford (center) played really well.”
Through the airways, first-year quarterback Wade Hunsaker threw for 119 yards, completing five of 14 attempts for two touchdowns
He was, however, intercepted twice.
First-year head coach Quinlan has indicated since the onset of the campaign that he has faith in Hunsaker’s arm and his Payson debut was more evidence that the signal-caller, with practice, can become an effective passer.
Hunsaker’s first scoring aerial was a 36-yard strike on the game’s opening play to wide receiver Westin Gibson.
Quinlan and his staff obviously guessed St. Johns would come out in a cover 3 defense, so the Payson “O” broke from the huddle into a “trips” or three-receiver side formation.
One of the St. Johns safeties bit on the wrong route and Hunsaker was able to gun the ball to Gibson.
The play marked some heady strategy from Quinlan, a first-year head coach.
About seven minutes later, Hunsaker hooked up with Gunner Bauer on a 26-yard scoring pass.
The TD capped a workman-like 14-play, 88-yard drive with much of the yardage being picked up by senior tailback Payson Herring who finished with 133 yards rushing on 13 attempts.
Harper also had some nice runs, most them between the tackles, rushing for 46 yards on 10 carries.
Gibson, who played running back as well as receiver, rushed for 36 yards on six carries.
With Quinlan liberally substituting in the backfield, sophomore Chance Randall received the opportunity to showcase his potential, picking up 21 yards on five carries.
“He really ran hard,” said Quinlan. “He had the fresh legs and an opportunity (to play) and took advantage of it.”
Gibson led the team in receiving with two catches for 43 yards and a TD.
If there was a gridiron glitch that raised its ugly head, it was penalties, as the Longhorns were ticketed 13 times for 86 yards.
While those are not monumental totals, Quinlan will want the players to clean up their act, having stressed discipline since the onset of training camp.
“Those penalties and our mistakes were very costly,” Quinlan said. “It could have been a much different game had we not made them.”
Around the region
In other East Region games, Snowflake dumped the Red Mountain Juniors 33-7, Blue Ridge beat first-year school Vista Grande 49-0, Round Valley slipped past Winslow 33-27 and Alchesay fell to Tempe Prep 41-14.
Show Low did not play.
In the 3A conference, Blue Ridge is ranked first, Show Low second and Round Valley fourth giving the East a trio of top-five rated teams.
No. 3 ranked Florence defeated Gilbert Combs 51-0 and No. 5 Tucson Empire beat Thatcher 28-22.