Games between Maricopa and Tempe rarely finish without at least a little drama as the clock creeps closer and closer to zero. This time, though, it was the Buffaloes that came out on top with a 16-14 home victory against the Rams on Friday night.
After seemingly giving the game away with a muffed punt return with 2:30 left, the Rams (0-1) received an unexpected extra life thanks to an interception by junior defensive back Adam Kocheiser courtesy of Tempe (1-0) quarterback Emanuel Gant that was taken back to the Buffaloes' 45 with approximately 90 seconds left.
From there, Maricopa quarterback Isaiah Pedro connected with wideout Kendric Garcia for two quick receptions that, combined with a pair of short runs by halfback Elijah Alvarado and an incomplete pass, put Maricopa on Tempe's 16 yard line with half a minute left. But the ensuing 33-yard field goal by kicker Christian Ramirez missed to the right, which gave the Buffaloes what could be a huge season-opening victory.
“The ball just bounced our way tonight,” said Tempe head coach Brian Walker.
While the missed field goal is a simple and obvious cause for the Rams' loss, head coach Cory Nenaber said the game really came down to the team's inability to score in Tempe's red zone in the first half. The most glaring moment came after Kocheiser's first interception, which he returned to the Buffaloes' 4 yard line late in the first quarter.
Already up 7-6 thanks to senior Tim Byrd's 82-yard kickoff return a few minutes earlier, Maricopa couldn't double its point total in four plays, including a fourth-and-inches play at the goal line in which halfback Falaah Shabazz was stuffed by the Tempe defense.
“It could have been 28-6 at halftime,” Nenaber said.”That's high school football for you.”
Maricopa was quite close to entering halftime with the 7-6 lead it had, but turned the ball over on downs once again in Tempe territory with a hint more than 30 seconds left. It proved to be just enough time for Gant to connect twice with wideout Sebastian Watkins – first for a quick 9-yard gain and second a 74-yard catch-and-run touchdown preceded by a few evasive maneuvers by Gant.
Maricopa took back the lead late in the third quarter due in large part to two pass interference calls on Tempe – the second negated a potential interception – that kept the Rams' drive alive. The Rams finished this opportunity off with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Pedro to Kocheiser.
Tempe took the lead for good on the next drive, with Gant orchestrating the Buffaloes' offense deep into Maricopa territory before ceding to kicker Jesse Hernandez, who hit a 27-yard field goal with 10 minutes to play.
Gant ended the evening with 14 of his 29 yards completed for 307 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Watkins ended up with three receptions for 98 yards, while teammate Massiah Smith grabbed eight passes for 155 yards.
For the Rams, Pedro finished 15 for 25 with 129 passing yards and a touchdown and chipped in 74 yards rushing on 10 carries, and Byrd and Kocheiser caught five and four passes for 53 and 34 yards, respectively. Leading the team on the ground was senior Elijah Alvarado, who carried the ball 14 times for 94 yards, including a nifty 51-yard run in the third quarter.
Friday's game was the fourth in a series of tight matchups between the two squads. The Rams won on a Tempe missed field goal three years ago, earned an overtime victory two years ago on a game-ending interception in the end zone, and effectively knocked Tempe out of the playoffs with last season's 34-17 victory.
“I'm just proud of my guys for hanging in there and getting revenge, so to speak,” Walker said.
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