Payson defenders chased Mason Scott all over the field on Friday night.
The big Winslow senior ran wild between the 20-yard lines.
But he struggled to score as the Longhorns slammed the door with several huge defensive stops in the shadow of their own end zone.
And the Bulldogs needed to score as junior Trevor Cline continued his standout season by throwing four touchdown passes to lead the No. 16 Longhorns past host and 15th-ranked Winslow 28-21 in a battle of 7-1 teams.
Payson improved to 8-1 overall with its sixth straight win and stayed perfect in the 3A East at 4-0. If the Longhorns beat visiting Blue Ridge in the regular season finale at 7 p.m. Friday, they’ll secure their first region championship since 2008.
“It feels great,” said Payson coach Bryan Burke. “All I know is we came up with a great win tonight.”
Cline completed 13 of 15 passes for 287 yards and 4 TDs to account for the bulk of Payson’s 358 yards of total offense. Jesse Conway caught three passes for 152 yards as he continues to add to his school career receiving yards record. All three receptions went for touchdowns.
But Cline has more weapons, including Porter Flake. The senior caught seven passes for 115 yards and a touchdown.
The Longhorns rushed for 71 yards on 28 carries. Cline led the way with 46 rushing yards on 16 totes, including some big third- and fourth-down conversions to keep drives alive.
He credited the offensive line of left tackle Will Howell, left guard Soto Sellis, center Zach Cancasci, right guard Rohan Smith, right tackle Connor Faust and Flake at tight end for giving him time to throw and opening running lanes.
“The offensive line — they let me do my thing,” Cline said.
He said the mantra is plus one, meaning everyone gives everything they have plus one more.
“I’m pretty excited for the next game, Blue Ridge week,” Cline said. “It’s all you got plus an extra one in everything.”
The Bulldogs (7-2, 2-2 3A East) entered the showdown hoping to create a logjam atop the 3A East standings with Payson, Snowflake (7-2, 3-1) and Blue Ridge (7-2, 3-1) but watched the Longhorns prevail to move within a win of the title.
Winslow amassed 480 yards from scrimmage, with 395 of that on the ground. Scott led the way with 242 yards and a TD on 23 carries. Robert Wilbanks accumulated 173 yards from scrimmage, rushing 12 times for 101 yards and catching four passes for 72 yards and a score. Jace Lyons completed 7 of 14 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.
The home team took the opening kickoff and marched down the field to take a 7-0 lead. Scott scored on a 5-yard run to cap the drive that took 6:39 off the clock.
But the Longhorns scored the next three touchdowns to take charge.
“Big time players make big time plays in big time games. We couldn’t get a bigger game, couldn’t ask for a bigger game and our guys made big time plays when we needed them,” Burke said.
“When we needed a defensive stop, somebody came and made it. When we needed a big throw, Trevor made it. Jesse caught some and Porter made some big receptions. Our guys that we asked to respond, they continue to respond.
“Sometimes we need to get punched in the face. Sometimes we need to wake up a little bit. When we need to make a play, we’re going to respond and we’re going to make a play. So credit to our kids. They played their hearts out. They played with guts, they played with grit and they kept their heads in it.”
Cline connected with Conway on a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, hitting the senior with a 26-yard TD strike to tie it 7-7 with 8:11 to play in the first half before lofting a 70-yard bomb to the speedster to put Payson ahead to stay with 1:59 left in the first half.
The Longhorns opened the second half on an 83-yard scoring drive capped by Cline’s 20-yard TD pass to Flake that put the visitors up by two touchdowns.
Wilbanks snagged a 40-yard TD pass from Lyons to make it 21-14 with 2:38 left in the third quarter but Conway raced 56 yards with Cline’s fourth scoring strike to make it 28-14. Lyons ran 11 yards into the end zone to give the home team a chance with 2:18 remaining, but the Longhorns recovered the onside kick and picked up a first down to run out the clock.
Senior James Watson has played a key role at defensive end in his first year with the Longhorns after moving here from Oregon.
“It’s amazing,” he said of the season. “This is the first time I’ve been on a winning team and it feels great.”
He said the key to the Longhorns’ success is how close they are.
“I love my family,” Watson said. “These guys are my brothers.”
Payson came up with several big defensive stops to deny the Bulldogs points in the red zone, stopping them on fourth down several times, including at the Payson 12-, 6- and 4-yard lines. The Horns also blocked a field goal attempt.
Mike Dominguez was 4-for-4 kicking extra points for Payson.
Kyle Shepard returned to action after leaving the Snowflake game two weeks earlier for concussion protocol.
Neither team turned the ball over.
Payson had a season-low two penalties for 10 yards. Winslow also drew just two flags for 20 yards.
The Longhorns chased an elite running back on Friday night.
And they tackled another victory that leaves them one triumph from joining the elite teams in program history as regional champions.