Hunter Stanfield raced into the Chino Valley backfield like a guided missile and hit his target.
Jayden Smith avoided the sack, but was forced to hurry to get rid of the ball before Stanfield knocked him to the ground.
The pressure altered the throw just enough for Gabe Hilgendorf to intercept it and race 94 yards down the sideline for a game-changing touchdown that left a large Payson crowd screaming with delight and propelled the Longhorns to a 33-20 victory in Friday night’s season opening football game in Payson.
It was one of several impact plays by the home team, which had trouble containing the Cougars early, but came through time after time after intermission.
CV dominated the time of possession 30:08-17:52 as Smith completed 21 of 35 passes for 377 yards and CV amassed 502 yards of total offense. But he was just 7-for-20 with two interceptions in the second half as the Longhorns stopped the visitors from scoring on their final six possessions.
The Cougars reached the end zone on three of their first five possessions.
“The first half was a little slow, but we made some adjustments at half,” said linebacker Travis Christianson.
“The second half, that’s when we came alive on the defensive side and it turned out really good for us. We stepped up when we had to. It was a team effort.”
It was a rare opening-night homecoming game for Payson and Christianson was voted homecoming king.
The senior played a key role on both sides of the ball, rushing for two touchdowns in addition to his role as a defensive leader.
Christianson broke a scoreless tie on a 9-yard run midway through the opening quarter, then added a 15-yard TD run to put the home team up 20-7 with 5:10 left in the first half.
Dexter Waterman connected with Hilgendorf on a 12-yard TD pass to put Payson up 13-7 just 1:34 after Smith’s 2-yard run gave CV a 7-6 lead 35 seconds into the second quarter.
Harrison Setter scored on a 3-yard run for CV with 1:35 left in the second quarter to make it 20-14 and CV opened the second half with an 80-yard TD pass from Smith Ashton Loftin highlighting an 83-yard drive that took just 48 seconds. Stanfield blocked the extra-point attempt that would have given CV a 21-20 lead.
The Cougars threatened to take control when they set up shop at the Payson 17-yard line following a high snap that sailed over punter Mike Dominguez’s head and resulted in an 18-yard loss.
But instead of surrendering a third unanswered touchdown, the Longhorns stood tall in that moment and several more throughout the second half to win their opening game for just the second time in the last six seasons.
Waterman capped the scoring on a 2-yard run with 3:24 left in the third quarter after Christianson tackled the punter at the CV 2 after he tried to pick up the down a fake punt on fourth and 19 from the Cougar 11. Stanfield’s blocked punt on the previous possession that gave Payson the ball on the CV 4 likely made the Cougars abandon any thought to punting the rest of the game.
After Hilgendorf’s interception, the Longhorns ended the rest of the CV possessions with a blocked a punt by Stanfield, Christianson’s tackle for loss on the fake punt, a blocked 22-yard field goal attempt by Stanfield, and interception by Daltin Stockon and an incomplete fourth down pass.
Payson was set up at the CV 4 following Stanfield’s blocked punt but that drive ended when Smith intercepted a Waterman pass in the end zone. Smith was hurt on the play but returned a few plays later.
Room for improvement
Payson coach Bryan Burke saw plenty of things the Longhorns need to improve on for this week’s game at Mesa Eastmark.
In addition to surrendering more than 500 yards from scrimmage, the Longhorns committed 10 penalties for 92 yards, which ended drives early or kept CV drives alive.
And Payson was 0-for-6 on third and fourth down conversions.
“When you guys put this down in the win column there’s not a ‘U’ that goes next to it, so it doesn’t matter if it’s ugly or not, we’re 1-0,” Burke said. “We responded. It was ugly at times but mentally tough teams (win these games).”
He said homecoming week during the first week of the football season made the challenge even greater for a team with several new assistant coaches and lots of first-year varsity players.
“If you want to cancel homecoming tomorrow, I’d never have another one again,” he said. “It’s great for the kids.
“There’s a ton of distractions going on, especially this early. We’re still trying to figure some stuff out anyways, then you add the homecoming stuff, yeah, it makes it tough to focus.”
He said they just couldn’t find a better week to hold homecoming. “It just didn’t work out time wise,” he said.
CV turned the ball over twice on a pair of interceptions. Payson had just one turnover.
Smith opened the game by completing his first 14 passes.
His first incomplete pass came on the final play of the first half as Smith thought he completed a touchdown pass only to have the catch ruled just out of the back of the end zone.
That led to a 15-yard penalty against the CV coach that was added to the second-half kickoff. CV hurt its cause with 12 penalties for 132 yards.