The Campo Verde defense put a fitting cap on what was a slug-it-out contest on Friday at Higley.
Coyotes safety and captain Josh McDowell returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown with 19 seconds left to end any hopes for the Knights, as Campo Verde came away with a 14-3 game in a matchup of Division III teams.
"It couldn't happen to a better kid," Campo Verde coach Max Ragsdale said of McDowell. "He's the heart and soul of our defense and he's been hurt and didn't play against (Apache Junction, in the opener). He's still got a bad wing and came out and did what he did."
While the Campo Verde offense struggled all night and turned the ball over five times, the Coyotes' defense made the plays, holding Higley to 136 yards rushing on 46 attempts and just 189 total yards of offense.
The Coyotes held Higley out of the end zone after the Knights drove down to the 3-yard line late in the third quarter, and it gave their offense time to get organized.
"In the first half there, it was anything that could go wrong, did go wrong," Ragsdale said. "It wasn't the play call, it wasn't the schemes, it was just executing and doing the little things like ball security."
"Our defense is playing unbelievable. They say the defense always shows up, but there are going to be times where something happens and were going to have to pick it up on the offensive side of the ball."
Both teams were coming off easy wins in their opener, but this game was a physical battle of wills, with Higley getting on the board in the first half with a 32-yard field goal from Cade Miller. Both teams had scoring chances. Campo Verde fumbled inside the Higley 5-yard line in the first half, and Higley couldn't score after the Knights (1-1) drove to the Campo Verde 3 in the third quarter.
"The physicality of the game, the running, that's what we were ready for," Higley coach Eddy Zubey said. "I think we were pleased with how we were physical on both sides of the ball, but our defense played really well. We had our chances."
For the Coyotes (2-0), the turning point came early in the fourth quarter when Higley clung to that 3-0 lead. Higley starting quarterback Mythias Young was knocked out of the game early in the third quarter, and backup Alfonso Wade came in. With the ball on their own 25, the Knights committed their first turnover on a fumbled exchange which gave the Coyotes the ball on the Higley 24.
Campo Verde quarterback Luke Pineda then drove the Coyotes in and scored on a sneak from four yards out to put his team up 7-3. Pineda's score made up for failed chances in the first half, which saw Campo Verde get inside the Higley five, but fumble it away.
Pineda finished with 48 yards rushing and 67 yards passing on 8 of 9 attempts. He appeared ready to put the game out of reach before McDowell did, as he had back-to-back first down runs that gave the Coyotes the ball on the Higley 11 with under three minutes to play. However, the Knights forced yet another fumble to give themselves a final chance.
Wade drove Higley into Campo Verde territory with under a minute left before McDowell made back-to-back big plays to ice the game. The first was a big hit on Higley receiver Tristan DaCosta that knocked the ball out on what would have been a first down at the Campo Verde 35. On the next play, McDowell played the ball and intercepted Wade's throw and took it in for the game-clinching score.
"Our defense will keep us in the game all of the time, and that allows us to keep grinding," Ragsdale said. "We can hang our hat on how we finished the game. The first half was horrible and not what we wanted to do."
Like Campo Verde, Higley had its share of scoring chances, thanks in large part to its defense. On Higley's first possession of the second half, Young was hit hard on consecutive plays inside his own 1-yard line, forcing him out of the game. Higley had to punt from its own 2-yard line. But the drive was rejuvenated when Campo Verde's returner, Darius Williams, tried to pick up the bouncing punt, which went off his leg' and was recovered by Higley on its own 40.
Four plays after the recovery, Thomas Bush broke through the Coyotes defense and was headed for a score, but McDowell dragged him down at the Campo Verde 3. The Knights, however, failed to score, as the Coyotes sniffed out a DaCosta reverse on second down and dropped him for a 5-yard loss, then stopped Bush on fourth down.
"With Mythias out, we were missing having that threat as a runner back there," Zubey said. "But Alfonso came in there and showed us some things."
Bush was the lone player on either side with any solid offensive numbers, as the senior gained 112 yards on 25 carries.
Campo Verde finished the game with 193 total yards. Erick Belcher had five catches for 56 yards as well as a 63-yard kickoff return at the start of the second half. Ogbonnaya saw his first action of the season, but only played in the first half and had 25 yards on nine carries.
Campo Verde 14, Higley 3
Campo Verde 0 0 0 14 - 14
Higley 3 0 0 0 - 3
First downs 11 10
Rush-Yds 33-125 46-136
Pass yards 67 53
Comp-Att-Int 8-9-0 3-11-1
Penalties-yards 4-30 5-35
Fumbles-lost 6-5 4-1
H: FG Miller 32
CV: Pineda 4 run (Wells kick)
CV: McDowell 60 interception return (Wells kick)