Centennial shook off three quarters of frustration, scoring twice in the final minutes to down Phoenix Desert Vista 20-7 Thursday.
Leading rusher John Hughes, after finding yards hard to come by all night, powered through the middle for a four-yard touchdown, giving Centennial (5-0) its first lead of the night. Junior quarterback Dain McFarland rolled out and found junior fullback Austin Arias for the two-point conversion. The Coyotes now held a 14-7 advantage with 8:13 remaining.
This 81-yard scoring drive was the only long march either team was able to muster. McFarland operated out of the spread offense, picking apart the Thunder's defense with a 34-yard sideline-hugging bomb to junior Matt Baugh and a 24-yard slant to senior Justin Callahan in a third-and-20 situation. Then he found Baugh again on a 13-yard out route on a fourth down play.
"It gives us a lot of confidence to drive down the field like that against one of the best teams in the state," McFarland said.
It didn't take long for the Coyotes to take control. A sack by senior defensive tackle Jack Ramsey forced Desert Vista (3-2) into a long third-down play from its own 4 yard line.
Junior quarterback Cody Sokol's throw into zone coverage went directly into the hands of Reggie Umolo. The senior linebacker, with no Desert Vista player in sight, cruised 19 yards into the end zone with 6:20 left. A miscue on the extra point gave the Coyotes their final margin of victory.
"Coach called a good play to drop back, and my eyes lit up as I saw it coming to me," Umolo said.
Both teams took to the air in the second half, as a consistent push from the defensive lines made running very difficult. McFarland threw 10 of his 16 passes in the half and Sokol put the ball up 17 times. On the night, McFarland hit on 10 of his attempts for 129 yards, while Sokol completed nine of 24 attempts for 98 yards.
While Sokol zeroed in on a favorite target — senior Casey Bolena, who hauled in five passes for 94 yards — McFarland was able to spread the wealth. Callahan and Baugh each caught three balls, for 55 and 52 yards respectively, but Arias, junior Kyle Coffey and senior tailback John Hughes also made key grabs.
"Maybe we don't have a Jarrell Barbour like last year," coach Dick Taylor said. "This year we have a lot of solid receivers that run good routes and catch the ball well."
Much like the earlier game against another East Valley megapower, Chandler Hamilton, Centennial went to the spread offense in a key situation, often lining John Hughes up as a wideout and leaving his brother Anthony as the lone setback. On two occasions, McFarland took the snap in an empty backfield look and scooted through the holes in the defense for good gains.
Centennial had a feeling it might need to open things up against Desert Vista and rely on McFarland more in his fifth start.
"We've been practicing the spread all week," McFarland said. "Our receivers are great. They're able to get open against anybody."
Emphasizing the pass proved wise, as the Hughes brothers had mixed results on the ground. While leading rusher John was bottled up in the first half, with seven yards on seven carries, Anthony picked up 53 yards, also on seven carries.
The junior Hughes provided Centennial with its first ray of hope 42 seconds before halftime. Anthony bounced off a tackler behind the line of scrimmage and raced 25 yards to the end zone. A missed extra point put the Coyotes behind at the half.
For much of the first three quarters, the Coyotes were stuffed in the trenches and they were pinned deep in their end several times. Dominating the field position battle put Desert Vista in control, despite an anemic offense.
The field tilted the Thunder's way once John Hughes fumbled on Centennial's second offensive play. After a pass interference penalty kept Desert Vista's drive alive, Centennial stymied Desert Vista on four plays from the 5 yard line, but could do little once it took over on downs.
A shanked punt set up Desert Vista on the Centennial 20. Shortly thereafter, Sokol threaded a 19-pass to Bolena for the game's first touchdown.
Centennial responded with a solid dive that stalled and ended in a missed 40-yard field goal. Then, after Desert Vista returned the favor with an equally poor punt, the Coyotes were in business at the Thunder 27. An ineffective series ended in a missed 41-yard field goal.
Lee Williams' directional punt rolled out at the one-yard line midway through a scoreless third quarter and it appeared Centennial's rough nght would continue. The Coyotes gained enough yards to ensure they wouldn't stay pinned in, and would follow with their biggest drive after sacking Sokol on third down to end the third quarter.
"Some nights things don't seem to click," Taylor said. The coach said he was proud of his team for sticking together and, eventually, making its own breaks.
Though Bolena was able to get open deep on a couple of plays, Taylor said he found few faults with the defense. The line constantly pushed back Desert Vista blockers, limiting junior fullback Anthony Kereluk to 24 yards on seven carries and completely shutting down senior running back Marcus Washington, who lost six yards on seven carries.
When Sokol dropped back, he often saw Ramsey and senior defensive ends Jimmie Lewis and Josh Bell collapsing the pocket. Centennial sacked Sokol six times and forced several hurried throws late in the game.
"Our defensive line really stepped up today," Umolo said. "They made it easy for the linebackers to drop back and play the ball."