Lightning struck. The offense didn’t. And the defense got shocked.
All of which added up to a literally, last-minute loss to Fountain Hills for the Payson Longhorns Friday, after a two-hour delay by the threat of lightning strikes caused the team to lose its grip on a game it had dominated.
After leading the whole game, the Longhorns ground to a halt on a crucial drive, turned the ball over on Fountain Hills’ 7-yard line, then for the first time all night failed to contain a sustained, desperation, Fountain Hills drive for a heartbreaking touchdown in the game’s final minute.
So by any measure, the 20-14 loss to a football team the Longhorns had dominated for most of four quarters dealt a blow to a team that has struggled out of the starting blocks this season.
On the other hand, the Longhorns scored a moral victory of sorts — with their most disciplined attention to the fundamentals so far this season.
The team drew only one penalty and coughed up a single turnover.
Compare that tally to the fiasco the week before against top-ranked Camp Verde, during which the Longhorns earned a staggering 15 penalties and committed a suicidal nine turnovers.
“I hate losing. I know the kids hate losing,” said coach Byron Quinlan. “But the kids know they got better this week — they just felt frustrated that ultimately they lost the game when really and truly they controlled the game.”
The Longhorns played a tough, physical game, relying on battering runs that picked up five yards or so at a time and accounted for 95 percent of the offensive plays. The loss of five offensive starters due to injuries in previous games and practices meant that many players played both offense and defense, with 6-foot, 6-inch, 220-pound lineman Jack Hacker anchoring the line on both sides of the ball.
“He’s the biggest kid out there,” said Quinlan, of the gutsy senior.
The Longhorn offense controlled the ball for most of the evening, grinding out two touchdowns and controlling the clock. Running Back Aaron Barnes put in a solid game, gaining more than 200 yards and accounting for one of the two touchdowns.
Quarterback Gunner Goodman kept a tight grip on the ball and on fundamentals, with only a single offside penalty — in vivid contrast to the riot of penalties the week before.
“We were just horrible the last few games,” Quinlan conceded, “but this time our kids played really disciplined football. We did a ton of work over the week and just stayed really focused on the mental side of the game.”
One or two lapses proved costly, however. A bad snap on a punt set up a field goal for Fountain Hills, after a determined stop by the defense. Then a kickoff return set up another TD for Fountain Hills. Those two lapses kept Fountain Hills in the game, although from the stands it looked like the Longhorns had bought up the field and were going to build condos.
Then the weather took a hand.
Anxious referees kept a wary eye on an approaching thunderstorm, with distant ground strikes evident.
Finally, with the Longhorns sitting on a 14-13 lead, they called a 30-minute halt in the game to determine if the storm would move on. Repeatedly just as the refs were ready to restart the game, another flash of lightning would trigger another 30-minute delay. “I could see the first delay,” said Quinlan, “but especially with what we normally see up here in Rim Country, it seemed a little over the top” to extend the halt to a full two hours.
The Longhorns lost their edge during the delay.
In Fountain Hills’ territory driving for a game-clinching score, the Longhorns reached their foe’s 20-yard-line. But a quarterback sack and a bobbled snap on third and 10 snuffed out the drive. Instead of what seemed like an easy score, the Longhorns had to punt, with less than four minutes left in the game. Even that seemed well short of a disaster, since the Longhorn defense had contained Fountain Hills’ offense all night long. Not this time.
Starting from their own 7-yard line, Fountain Hills finally picked the lock on the Longhorn defense that had kept running back Chase Johnson shackled all night.
Johnson finally got some running room, with help from a trick play that fooled the Longhorn line and netted about 40 yards. In this final crucial drive, Fountain Hills mingled passes and running plays in a rhythm that had eluded both teams all night long.
Fountain Hills left 54 seconds on the clock after that final stake through the heart of the Longhorns, but lacking a passing game, that wasn’t enough time to make a comeback.
Still, Quinlan took comfort from the persistence of the players, the strong performance of players who filled in for the injured starters and the dramatic improvement in the fundamentals.
“Our team motto is to finish. We’ve got to get theses kids to believe that we have to play until the last whistle blows. We just have to play all four quarters. They’ve improved 100 percent from the last two games. Coming out with a loss is tough, but ultimately they know they got better against a solid team.”
Quinlan said he’s trying to build on those fundamentals and concentrate on developing more of a passing game, just to prevent opponents from focusing their defense exclusively on the run.
The Longhorns face Miami in a home game Friday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. Both Miami and the Longhorns have so far amassed one win and two losses, which should make for a good matchup — with both teams showing up with a lot to prove.
Quinlan said, “We’re hoping to get back on the right track this week with them. They’re a feisty group. The Miami coach is really a good guy who gets his kids up to play big games. But we’ve got the potential to get back on track this week. I expect our kids and fans to see good things occur this week. We have to keep them honest by being able to throw the football more.”