The outcome of tonight’s Blue Ridge vs. Payson East Region football game will hinge on the battle for real estate — most of it within three yards of the line of scrimmage.
But then again, that’s the way it is in most games the Yellow Jackets (6-0) have played since Bob London took over as BR’s line coach.
Some call London, who doubles as Blue Ridge’s track coach, the finest high school line coach in the state regardless of school size classification.
When first-timers get a glimpse of his boys up front, they see why he is reaping such high praises.
BR linemen are probably the quickest off the ball in Arizona. In fact, they are so quick, some opposing coaches have candidly suggested, usually in pregame complaints to officials and referees that they actually fire out prior to the ball being snapped.
The Jackets haven’t often been flagged for that infraction, so the grumbles must fall on deaf ears.
In the two most recent games the Horns have outplayed BRHS — the 1998 and 2008 state championships — Payson had the linemen that were the equal of, probably better, than the Yellow Jackets.
Remember Ty Hulbert, Jordan Sieverson, Mike Barker and Marc Bennett 12 years ago? How about Matt Wilson and Bryan Burke in 2008?
All were hungry beasts who paved the way for the much more heralded backs and receivers to do their thing.
London also has his linemen well schooled and disciplined, a lesson he probably learned while playing for Joe Girardi at BRHS in the early 1970s and later at Baker University in Kansas.
Girardi, who died in a car accident in 1982, is remembered in the White Mountains as the Lombardi of high school coaches and several of those who once played for him, including London and former BRHS assistant Gary Williams, have gone on to become fine prep coaches.
Payson head coach Byron Quinlan has his team out to a 4-3 start and is among those who respect London’s accomplishments saying he is “a great teacher” and he hopes to forge the Longhorn line program into one similar to what BR has in place.
“Our weight lifting and off-season program will be huge in getting that done,” he said.
If Payson’s linemen — including Keaton Duran, Sean Ford, Justin Moratti and Jake Gonzales — can play error free, ferociously and with the same quickness and sense of urgency as their BR opponents, the Horns could be reveling in a huge upset.
A strong showing on the LOS would also open up the game for backfield mates Westin Gibson and Payson Herring.
Around the region, Gibson is being hailed as arguably the best all-around athlete in the East and Herring the finest running back.
Tonight, they can prove those praises true, but it won’t happen without help from their buddies up front.
Throughout the past week, Gibson has been slowed by an ankle injury that could limit him.
“He’s been in a lot of pain, but he has played through it,” said Quinlan. “He’s a tough kid.”
Herring is averaging almost 140 yards per game and has been the focus of attention for opposing defenses since the onset of the season.
BRHS coach Paul Moro’s strategy probably won’t be much different — he will plan and scheme to slow the Longhorn star maybe to the point of having a defender shadow him all over the BRHS field.
If Herring leaves to go to the restroom, he might find a Jacket defender there with him.
Defensively, the Longhorn bandits must contain a BR offense that has churned out 283 points this season.
It is led by transfer Jordan Morgan, who sat out two early season games while the Arizona Interscholastic Association mulled over challenges from rival Show Low concerning alleged recruiting.
Morgan, last year’s 2A Player of the Year at Valley Christian, was eventually cleared to play and has been on a tear since. In 18 carries, he rushed for 327 yards and four touchdowns with a longest run of 77 yards.
The only BR player who has been more deadly is Winslow transfer Chayse Russell who has 475 yards on 37 carries and six TDs.
But the pair’s stats have been racked up against less than formidable competition.
The only accomplished team the Yellow Jackets have played is Snowflake, a game BR won 41-7.
The patsies on the Jacket schedule have included Vista Grande (49-0), Holbrook (48-0), Alchesay (47-0), Globe (48-7) and last week Ganado (50-0).
The Horns enter tonight’s game determined to break a two-game losing streak having fallen two weeks ago, 14-7, to Snowflake and on Oct. 8, to Fountain Hills, 25-19.
Taking on the perennially tough Yellow Jackets is not the best way to break a losing streak, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.
Kickoff this evening is 7 p.m. in Lakeside.