PEORIA (3-3) at DYSART (3-3)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Thursday at 11425 N. Dysart Road, El Mirage.
Both teams have recovered from stumbling starts to the season, though looking at common opponents would tip the Panthers as favorites.
Peoria outgunned Sunrise Mountain 55-34 Friday, behind the legs and arm of junior tailback Ira Rojas. He opened the scoring by throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Darius Aguirre and rushed for 154 yards and three touchdowns in the win.
"That's a team that every week, they keep getting better. That last week against Sunrise was very impressive," Dysart coach Andrew Garrett said. "
The Panthers also had the deep ball working, as senior quarterback Nick Salute hit Aguirre for an 80-yard score and senior Sam Pineda for 81- and 69-yard touchdowns.
Dysart was at the opposite extreme in a grinding 12-7 victory at Wickenburg. It's the third straight opponent the Demons' defense has held to single digits.
"It turned out to be a slugfest, and I think it's good for us," Garrett said.
Senior tight end Jordan Miller caught both of Dysart's touchdowns from senior quarterback Benson Grimes.
But the story, again, was a defense spearheaded by senior linebacker Cory Trufant (10 tackles) and junior nose guard Fa'asagua Tinoisamoa (six tackles, one sack).
Trufant transferred in from Valley Vista and gave the Demons an elite middle linebacker. Meanwhile, Tinoisamoa has been a revelation in his second season after moving to El Mirage from Samoa. He leads Dysart with 49 tackles and 10.5 sacks.
"He has just dominated this year," Garrett said. "He's facing double teams and sometimes triple teams and still getting to the quarterback. That opens up things for the rest of the defense."
Because of that, Garrett said he's excited to see how his teams strength up the middle matches up against Peoria's strength running the ball out of I-Formation and zone read looks.
WILLOW CANYON (3-3) at KINGMAN (1-5)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Thursday at 4182 N Bank St., Kingman.
Willow Canyon remained in the hunt for a Division II playoff berth by running over Ironwood 44-13 Friday. The Wildcats moved up to No. 21 in the power rankings.
Willow Canyon managed 274 yards on the ground, led by junior running backs J. D. Espree and Antony Thompson. Espree finished with 84 yards on nine carries and three touchdowns, while Thompson picked up 96 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns.
The Wildcats defense held Ironwood's triple option offense to 142 yards on the ground and forced seven turnovers.
“Coming in, we knew they were an option team,” coach Mike Hudnutt said. “If could stop their run, then we wanted to force them to beat us with whatever else they had.”
Senior cornerback Gabe Lumas provided a highlight in Kingman's previously dreary season Friday, bursting into the national record books with seven interceptions in a 48-21 win at Flagstaff.
#7 (DI) PHOENIX PINNACLE (6-0) at MOUNTAIN RIDGE (2-4)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Thursday at 22800 N. 67th Ave., Glendale.
The obituaries written for Mountain Ridge's football season after an 0-4 start have proved to be premature.
"The true test of your leadership is when you've faced adversity," coach Bobby Green said. "It's very easy when you start 0-4 to start blaming other people and our players, especially our senior leaders, didn't do that. They kept working and getting better."
Thursday, the Mountain Lions have a chance to notch a third straight marquee win when undefeated Pinnacle visits. Mountain Ridge beat an undefeated - if untested Valley Vista squad 41-14, then stunned No. 8 Anthem Boulder Creek 10-7 Friday.
Mountain Ridge did it with a new-look, ball-control offense and a dominant defense. Seniors Chase Russell and Taylor Rockwood, who Green said played every snap, carried the load.
Russell rushed 17 times for 101 yards and Rockwood added 16 carries and 67 yards, as the normally pass-happy Mountain Lions went to the air only 10 times. Their ability to control the clock refreshed a defense that had been good all year, but spent too much time on the field early.
"In the early part of the year, with our offense struggling, they were on the field about 30 minutes a game and they wore down," Green said. "With us running the ball more and controlling the clock, we helped them more."
Expect Mountain Ridge to emphasize their backs and physical offensive line against Pinnacle, the surprise team in Division 1 this year.
The Pioneers are physical on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Jackson Harley is nearly as prolific running (509 yards) as passing (831 yards, though he has thrown nine interceptions. Junior Evan Tompkins leads Pinnacle with 544 yards rushing.
The Pioneers defense has been sound after stepping up from 5A-II, led by senior linebacker Addison Palomino (40 tackles, 9.5 sacks). To Green, Pinnacle's defining traits are their discipline and attention to detail.
"If you make mistakes on them, they capitalize," he said.
West Valley Preps and Varsity Xtra will cover this game.
PHOENIX NORTH (3-3) at SUNRISE MOUNTAIN (4-2)
KICKOFF: 7:30 p.m. Thursday at 21200 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria.
Mustangs meet in this unusual matchup between Division I North and Division III Sunrise Mountain.
The Mustangs from Peoria enter trying to shore up a defense that allowed 64 points to Liberty and 55 to Peoria in back-to-back losses.
Sunrise Mountain remains lethal on offense, as senior quarterback Max Shepherd rushed for 193 yards and passed for 173 against Peoria.
And they have the most unique weapon in the state - senior kicker Ryan Hawkins. In the fourth quarter of the Peoria game, Hawkins split the uprights on a 61-yard field goal.
Only two local products have kicked longer field goals in state history. Mountain Ridge's Jeff Locke hit a 63-yarder in 2007 and Cactus' Kyle Pooler kicked a 62-yarder in 1989.
North is coming off big wins over rivals Carl Hayden and Trevor Browne, but the program is reeling from an incalculable loss.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Pankenier died in his sleep on Saturday at age 46.
He started at North in 1994, coaching baseball. He was head football coach for a few years in the late 1990 and early 2000s before coming back last year to be defensive coordinator.
Thursday afternoon the North community, including the football team and coaches, will celebrate Pankenier's life. Kickoff for the game has been pushed back 30 minutes so the team can attend the service and still have a reasonable amount of time to prepare for the game.
IRONWOOD (4-2) at PHOENIX CENTRAL (2-4)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Thursday at 4525 N. Central Ave., Phoenix.
Another Peoria Unified vs. Phoenix Union matchup pits these Division II opponents.
Ironwood looks to rebound from the Willow Canyon loss. On the plus side, quarterback Kyle Zoellner returned last week for the Eagles.
Central beat Maryvale last week but has struggled against non-district foes.
GLENDALE (0-6) at No. 4 (DIII) CACTUS (4-1)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Thursday at 6330 W. Greenway Road., Glendale.
Cactus gets what amounts to a one-week break in their schedule after playing defending state champions Scottsdale Saguaro and Phoenix Thunderbird and before facing probable playoff teams Agua Fria, Sunrise Mountain and Liberty.
The Cobras' woes from a 38-point shellacking by Saguaro continued in the first quarter as Thunderbird's backfield duo of Kani Benoit and Connor Hustead each scored to give the Chiefs a 14-0 lead.
The Cobras scored 10 in the second quarter, cut Thunderbird's lead to one entering the fourth quarter and put up 19 points in the final frame for a monumental 32-22 victory.
"It probably was make or break on our season," Cactus coach Larry Fetkenhier said. "It looked bleak, and to come back and dominate the second half was huge."
The defense slowed Thunderbird's tailbacks and Cactus senior Josh Aguirre broke out with a career-high 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns, but Fetkenhier called a special teams play the turning point.
"(Junior) Logan O'Donnell blocked a punt that turned the tide. We got the ball at the 8 and scored," Fetkenhier said.
GOODYEAR DESERT EDGE(4-2) at SHADOW RIDGE (3-3)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Thursday at 10909 N. Perryville Road, Surprise.
Shadow Ridge is riding a two-game winning streak, but runs into a talented and angry Desert Edge bunch.
The Scorpions are smarting from a 44-14 upset loss to rival Agua Fria last week. Senior wide receiver Anthony Fletcher is Desert Edge's most dangerous weapon, with 30 catches for 655 yards and four touchdowns.
Shadow Ridge beat Verrado last week 34-21 and again sophomore Chris Salsberry led the way. He ran for 262 yards and four touchdowns and has 832 yards and 11 scores on the season.
BEAVER DAM (3-2) at No. 3 (DVI) JOY CHRISTIAN (6-0)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Friday at 21500 N. 75th Ave., Glendale.
Joy Christian’s final home game of its eight-game regular season doubles as its only challenge in completing an undefeated regular season.
Even that statement is stretching it. Ajo is a common opponent for the schools, and the Red Raiders beat Gila Bend 38-16 and lost to Joy Christian 42-6.
The Eagles continued their dominance last week, demolishing Littlefield Beaver Dam 60-0 in the first half before emptying the bench in a 68-14 win. Gila Bend had the week off.
Westvalleypreps.com will cover this game.
No. 1 (DV) NORTHWEST CHRISTIAN (6-0) at No. 5 ARIZONA LUTHERAN (5-1)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Friday at 6036 S. 27th Ave., Phoenix.
It’s the second of three midseason tests for the defending champions. The Crusaders passed last week by beating Phoenix Christian, even though they only passed five times.
They’ll face a similarly ground-bound foe this week. Junior Alfred Erives leads the Coyotes with 1,009 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, while senior Ben Grams adds 487 yards.
“They’re going to win eight or nine games. They’re a good team,” Northwest Christian coach Dave Inness said.
Northwest Christian counters with senior Casey Jahn, who gained 335 of his 1,257 yards and scored six of his 20 touchdowns in the Phoenix Christian game.
Though this looks like the epitome of a one-man team, the Crusaders have more going for them in their repeat bid. The defense has been dominant — Phoenix Christian’s 10 points were the most they’ve allowed all year. And senior quarterback Orbi Gonzalez can throw if he needs to.
“Our team is more than Casey. Obviously, Casey is the center point,” Inness said. “We want to do it again.”
No. 2 (DIII) LIBERTY (6-0) at GREENWAY (3-3)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Friday at 3930 W. Greenway Road, Phoenix.
Liberty gets what amounts to a breather as the Lions will have a full week to prepare for this one.
They’re coming off wins over Sunrise Mountain, Paradise Valley (the final 2/3 of a suspended Sept. 9 game) and Copper Canyon. Senior tailbacks Matt Emineth (142) and Ryan Benedict (109) teamed with junior quarterback Tyler Rogers (92) to pace a ground game that rolled up 404 yards in a 48-8 romp over the Aztecs.
Greenway is not a pushover, but the Demons have struggled in two home losses to other Peoria Unified School District teams Sunrise Mountain (46-19) and Cactus (49-0). Greenway trounced Glendale 52-14 last week.
VALLEY VISTA (5-1) at TOLLESON (3-3)
KICKOFF: 7 p.m. Friday at 9419 W. Van Buren St., Tolleson.
Valley Vista can take a major step to the school's first playoff berth with a win tonight.
If Westview and Yuma Cibola nab the first two playoff spots for Division I Section I as expected, Valley Vista will battle for the final automatic berth with the only two teams who could catch them - St Mary's and Tolleson.
The Wolverines are improved though their wins are against Phoenix schools. Senior tailback Eric Ivy leads the way with 753 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Valley Vista beat Alhambra 32-14 for a school-record fifth win. The Monsoon defense forced four fumbles.