Payson’s football team led host Mesa Eastmark 10-0 through three quarters on Friday night.
But Gianni Mascolino threw three touchdowns passes in the fourth quarter to lead the Firebirds to a 19-16 come-from-behind victory.
Payson’s defense dominated the game early as both offenses struggled to score. The Longhorns led by an unusual score of 2-0 at intermission on a second-quarter safety.
Neither team could complete a successful drive until the visitors drove 80 yards in 11 plays to go ahead 10-0 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Travis Christianson and a two-point pass from Dexter Waterman to Connor Hatch with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
Eastmark lit up the scoreboard in a 49-42 loss at Mohave Valley River Valley a week earlier. So, holding the Firebirds scoreless for 36 minutes was impressive.
But containing their high-powered offense for an entire game proved too much for the Longhorns (1-1).
The Firebirds (1-1) finally scored with a seven-play 58-yard drive capped by Mascolino's 12-yard TD pass to Kaiden McCarty on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Longhorns blocked the extra-point try.
Payson capitalized on a fumble recovery by Christianson at the Eastmark 24-yard line to take a 16-6 lead on a 2-yard TD run by Caleb Marinelli with 7:16 to play. The extra-point attempt failed.
The home team answered on a 66-yard pass from Mascolino to McCarty to cap a five-play 77-yard scoring drive with 6:01 remaining. Hunter Stanfield blocked the extra-point attempt, leaving Eastmark down 16-12.
And the Firebirds stopped a Payson drive by recovering a fumble at the Payson 49 with 3:53 unplayed. They marched down the field to take the lead on an 18-yard scoring pass by Mascolino with 1:31 to go.
Payson drove to the its own 48 before Waterman’s final pass was picked off and the Firebirds took a knee to run out the clock.
The Longhorns lost the turnover battle 3-2.
Payson finished with 235 yards of total offense, with Waterman completing 13 of 23 passes for 114 yards and two interceptions.
The first interception came on a pass from the Eastmark 19 on the first play of the second quarter. But the Firebird defender was tackled at the Eastmark 1-yard line and the Longhorns recorded a safety two plays later.
The second pick came came with the Longhorns running out of time from their own 48. Eastmark had just taken the lead in a wild fourth quarter that saw the teams combine for four touchdowns in the 12-minute period.
Three of them happened because of Mascolino's arm.
The Longhorns tried to answer Mascolino's go-ahead 18-yard TD pass that put the home team ahead, but only 1:31 remained.
Waterman completed a pair of passes to Connor Hatch and Wyatt Ashton to march the Horns to the Payson 48, but a Firebird defender intercepted his final pass at the Eastmark 30 as the junior tried to get the Longhorns back in the end zone.
Defenses enjoy a big advantage when they know a quarterback has to throw.
The Longhorns featured a two-back game plan to gain 121 yards on 33 carries. Christianson rushed 13 times for 58 yards and Caleb Marinelli ran 14 times for 56 yards. And Waterman attacked through the air.
Many of Mascolino's passes fell incomplete completed 12 of 32 passes for 209 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Kellen Mills ended a Firebirds scoring treat when he came up with an interception inside the Payson 10 with 46 seconds left in the first half picked the junior off.
Eastmark missed two field goals, although they actually attempted field goals on back-to-back plays. They reached the Payson 27 midway through the third quarter and missed a 44-yard attempt wide but Payson had 12 men on the field, so the officials moved the ball ahead five yards. But they later moved it back, so they either waived off that penalty or added a penalty on the Firebirds. They missed another 44-yard kick, which again appeared to have the distance but sailed wide.
Eastmark was penalized eight times for 65 yards. Payson drew seven flags for the same amount of yards.
The Longhorns look to get back in the win column when they return home to take on Tuba City (2-0) at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 10. The Warriors beat Hopi 42-0 on Friday after trouncing Montezuma Creek (Utah) Whitehorse 48-0 last week.