Gilbert Mesquite picked the perfect time to unleash some offensive firepower, and that time was Friday night. With high-scoring Mesa Desert Ridge on its game the first two-plus quarters, the Wildcats had to produce something to avoid elimination.
That something was running back Anthony Lopez. Lopez dashed for a pair of 60-yard scoring runs in an amazing 30-point third-period onslaught by the Wildcats that helped them skip past the Jaguars, 37-27, in a 5A Division I first-round playoff game at Mesquite.
Mesquite (7-4) advances to next week’s quarterfinals and meets up with former region rival and defending 5A-I champ Chandler Hamilton at Hamilton. Desert Ridge closed out its return to 5A-I at 6-5.
Lopez, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound sophomore, gave Mesquite (7-4) a preview of his ability last week when he rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale against Mesa Dobson. He played for Mesquite’s junior varsity before last week.
Lopez was a blur in the third quarter to everyone, fans and Desert Ridge alike. He was unstoppable and nearly untouchable scoring on runs of 60 and 63 yards — two of three one-play, 60-yard-plus scoring drives in the third period. Lopez finished with 211 yards on 15 carries and scored Mesquite’s lone first-half score on an 18 yard pass from quarterback Steven Hansen.
In between Lopez’s scores, Hansen tossed a 60-yard TD pass to Josh Sabol. That instant offense got Mesquite’s defense off the hook as it gave up two third-quarter touchdowns on two of four Kevin Pantastico scoring tosses that kept the Jaguars ahead until late in the period. Pantastico finished 31 of 52 for 427 yards.
“We knew (Lopez) would be a darn good one,” Mesquite coach Mike Reardon said. “We kept him down there so he could mature. He vintaged quite well with the young kids.
“He’s by far our fastest guy. He makes a coach look pretty good.”
The only thing that was pretty good in the first half was Desert Ridge’s offense — as expected. In fact the Jaguars scored on their first play from scrimmage. A 56-yard touchdown pass from Pantastico to Jordan Becerra made it 7-0 just 19 seconds into the contest. With only 8 1/2 minutes elapsed, Desert Ridge was up 14-0 as Pantastico threw 49 yards to Becerra for another score. At that point Mesquite had already given up two points more than its season average per game. Becerra had 10 catches for 159 yards in the first half. He finished with 12 catches for 170 yards.
Desert Ridge had outgained Mesquite 263-49 with two minutes left in the first half. That’s when Mesquite inexplicably caught fire and made a game of it.
The Wildcats marched 65 yards in six plays in 51 seconds all via the pass to pull within 14-7 at halftime. Hansen was 5-of-6 passing on the drive, easily his most efficient passing series of the season. Hansen finished 10 of 17 for 135 yards and two TDs.
“We couldn’t stop anybody,” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “We saw the kid (Lopez) on film and he looked good. He’s legit.”
Lopez’s 63-yard TD run with 4:46 left put Mesquite ahead to stay, 30-27. The Wildcats added the final score of the game with 11 seconds left in the period. Running back Maka Taufa rambled 18 yards to the Desert Ridge 2 but fumbled. Wideout Tyler Summers scooped up the loose ball and carried it in to complete the 30-point quarter.
On the first play from scrimmage, Desert Ridge scores on a 56-yard pass from Kevin Pantastico to Jordan Becerra. The Jaguars need just 19 seconds to go up 7-0 on Mesquite.
A 49-yard touchdown pass from Pantastico to Becerra, their second connection of the game, makes it 14-0 Desert Ridge with 3:45 left in the first quarter.
Mesquite scores with 58 seconds left in the half on an 18-yard pass from Steve Hanson to Anthony Lopez. The Wildcats drove 65 yards in seven plays, all passes. It's Desert Ridge 14, Mesquite 7 at the half.
Desert Ridge intercepts a pass on Mesquite's 23-yard line and follows that up with a 17-yard TD pass from Kevin Pantastico to Paris Clark that gives the Jaguars a 21-7 lead with 8:25 left in the third quarter.
Mesquite responds with a 60-yard touchdown run by Anthony Lopez to cut the lead to 21-15 with 8:08 left in the third.
Pantastico finds Rudy Jimenez for a 71-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-15 Desert Ridge, but Mesquite scores on the first play of the ensuing drive with a 60-yard pass from Steve Hanson to Josh Sabol. It's 27-23 Jaguars late in the third quarter.
Mesquite takes the lead on a 63-yard run by Anthony Lopez after an interception. It's now Mesquite 30, Desert Ridge 27 with 4:46 to go in the third quarter.
Mesquite scores on a 2-yard fumble return by Tyler Summers to stretch the lead to 37-27 at the start of the fourth quarter.
It's a final: Mesquite 37, Desert Ridge 27. The Wildcats advance to take on Hamilton in the second round of the 5A-I playoffs.
No. 9 Desert Ridge at No. 8 Mesquite
Time: 7 p.m. today
Address: 500 S. McQueen Road, Gilbert
Key matchup: Mesquite's physical defense vs. finesse game of Kevin Pantastico and company. Desert Ridge did well in this matchup the first time around.
Key stat: Desert Ridge outgained Mesquite, 406-179, in regular-season meeting and lost in overtime.
The intrigue: Can Mesquite be effective enough with its ground game to aid defense in containing Desert Ridge offense. Mesquite used - and needed - three special-teams plays to its advantage in a 27-21 win the first time around.