Centennial-Apollo was an interesting matchup on paper. And at several points, Thursday's Cox 7 game of the week was a play or two away from becoming very interesting.
Centennial (4-0) eventually wore down Apollo (3-1) with strong offensive line play and three talented running backs, winning 40-28.
However, the Hawks proved a couple of things by trading shots with the Coyotes.
1. Apollo will be a very tough out for any Division II team in the playoffs. 2. The Hawks are more than highly-touted senior quarterback Jon Brown.
While that may be news to the rest of the state was well known leading up to the game on the Apollo campus.
"I'm real proud of how our kids competed, but coming into this game we weren't looking for a moral victory," Apollo coach Zach Threadgill said. "That 37 guys that suited up tonight believed they could win. We know who we are, and we don't have to prove that to anybody but ourselves. I'm real proud of the way we played tonight, but we're not happy."
Threadgill and the Hawks not satisfied with coming close. Not satisfied would be a polite way to describe Centennial coach Richard Taylor's postgame dressing down of the Coyotes.
Taylor said he wasn't taking away anything from Apollo. Rather he was infuriated by Centennial's mental mistakes in all three phases of the game.
Two plays in particular raised his ire. The first came in the final minute of the first quarter, on the first play from scrimmage after junior tailback Jalen Ortiz gave the Coyotes a 7-0 lead by dashing 47 yards on a sweep.
Brown dropped back and drilled senior wideout Dylan Katzenberger in stride on a slant. The wide-open Katzenberger raced 76 yards before being tackled at the Centennial 4.
Three plays later, Brown scored on a three-yard run.
"These are seniors I'm talking about, that are not lining up correctly. Eighty percent of big plays come about because of misalignment," Taylor said. "That first long pass that set up their touchdown, we were supposed to be strong right. Somebody called strong left and we went that way. Now we don't have enough guys to cover over here and Brown is too good of a player to miss that."
Then, with Centennial taking a 26-14 lead early in the third quarter, the Coyotes special teams allowed junior Joe Cortez to return the ensuing kickoff untouched 99 yards down the middle of the field, renewing the Hawks' hopes.
"It was so clear on that return for a touchdown. Our guys lost focus," Taylor said. "They were used to the ball being kicked out and just running through the end zone. Now it doesn't make it by a yard and we are not ready to make a play."
Brown was as advertised, accounting for all but 15 of Apollo's 347 yards of total offense. But the third-year starter had help from wide receivers who got open enough to move the chains and a sound offensive line that held Centennial's vaunted pass rush to three sacks.
Brown's second touchdown run — from a yard out — gave the visitors a 14-7 lead. He gained 63 yards on 22 carries (including sacks).
"Coming into this year, Jon was flying a bit under the radar, which is hard to say because he's 22-6 as a starter now," Threadgill said. "Coming into this season, all we expected people to talk about was Jon. But we knew what we had. We know what our kids are about. We can't use the 'we're young' excuse anymore, especially after playing an opponent like this."
After a pass interference penalty kept Centennial's next drive alive, Oritz ripped through the defense for 38 yards. That set up senior Zach Hoffpauir's three-yard touchdown run.
Then came two key sequences that tilted the game in Centennial's favor. After a three-and-out, Brown's punt was blocked by senior Tryan Nahrgang, leading a wave of four Coyotes.
On the next play, Ortiz scored on a seven-yard run. The extra point failed and Centennial took a 20-14 lead into the break.
The Coyotes kept the ball in Ortiz's hands after receiving the second-half kickoff. He picked up 43 yards on five carries on the 12-play, 80-yard drive before leaving with leg cramps. Hoffpauir punched it in from a yard away.
"Once you get in the red zone, you've got to score," Hoffpauir said. "That's my mindset. The offensive line played well. They were blowing guys up."
Cortez returned the ensuing kickoff for his touchdown. With Ortiz, also a cornerback and kick returner, resting on offense the rest of the way, Hoffpauir took over.
He caught a well-designed middle screen and motored 67 yards, stopping at the one. Then there was another one-yard plunge and a two-point conversion where Hoffpauir bounced away from contact twice.
He finished his four-touchdown night with a strong stiff-arm and a two-yard score. Sophomore tailback Matt Rodriguez relieved Ortiz, and picked up 47 yards on six carries in this drive.
"We ask a lot of (Jalen). Then, I was impressed with Rodriguez. I think he ran the ball very hard," Taylor said. "At that stage of the game, we needed to sustain a drive and take some time off the clock, and the offensive line was coming off the ball very good."
Brown hooked up with junior receiver Abraham Mendivil for two more highlights — a 60-yard pass play after Brown slipped out of junior Marcus Farria's grasp, and a one-handed touchdown grab by Mendivil from four yards out.
"I was very impressed with their overall scheme, and I was very impressed with how hard their kids played," Taylor said. "We were bigger than them. We had more kids than they did. I was impressed with how hard they played."