ORO VALLEY — It would have been easy for Higley coach Eddy Zubey to cite any number of little things that contributed to his team's 34-31 loss at Canyon del Oro in the first round of the Division III state playoffs.
There were the four missed extra points, the byproduct of a rash of injuries that included the Knights' long snapper. Or the six penalties they committed in the final eight minutes of play, including a pair of pass interference calls in the red zone on what proved to be CDO's game-clinching touchdown drive.
Or the telegraphed pass from Tyler Bloom that Dorado cornerback Kyron Cardwell dove in front of for an interception with Higley down three points in the final three minutes.
Any of those could have been blamed for the loss, or all of them could. But Zubey took the high road.
“You never want to make excuses,” Zubey said afterward. “We just didn't execute well at the beginning of the third quarter, and that cost us.”
After a wild and wacky first half that saw the teams combine for 590 yards and seven touchdowns, the second half became a defensive struggle. But ninth-seeded Higley (7-4) also stopped looking crisp on offense, turning it over on downs at the CDO 23 on its first drive of the second half, then punting for the first time on its next drive.
That allowed No. 8 CDO (10-1) to gain momentum and re-take the lead at 27-24 with 2:01 left in the third on a 2-yard TD run by Max Smith, who finished the game with 127 rushing yards and three scores.
Higley started to move the ball again after that, but then Ricky Marshall lost a fumble inside the CDO 30-yard-line, which the Dorados recovered and turned into another Smith TD run for a 34-24 lead with 6:55 left. CDO was bailed out twice on the drive by pass interference calls on Higley, including a backbreaker on 3rd-and-11 from the 21 when Higley linebacker Mason Johnson was flagged for face-guarding on a woefully underthrown pass.
The Knights quickly moved downfield to get to within 34-31 on an 8-yard run by Johnson, then got a stop to get the ball back with 3:06 left. But then Tyler Bloom, who was crisp most of the night, threw the wrong route on first down despite a wide open receiver, and on the next play had his out route picked off.
“We had run that play a couple of times, and (the defender) made a big play,” Zubey said.
Higley looked unstoppable in the first half, gaining 294 yards and scoring on four of five drives for a 24-21 halftime edge. The only drive without points ended at the CDO 1-yard-line when Bloom was ruled to have fumbled on a QB keeper.
CDO capitalized with a 99-yard TD pass from Jordan Closs-Lopez to JJ Metz and a 14-6 lead.
Bloom finished the game 22-of-38 for 261 yards and two TDs, part of 446 yards of offense for the Knights, while CDO had 481 yards for its effort.
Canyon del Oro 34, Higley 31
CDO — Max Smith 6 run (Thomas Koppy kick)
HIG — Mason Johnson 59 run (run failed)
CDO — JJ Metz 99 pass from Jordan Closs-Lopez (Koppy kick)
HIG — Trent Gilbert 18 pass form Tyler Bloom (run failed)
HIG — Ricky Marshall 5 run (pass failed)
CDO — Thomas Sawyer 69 pass form Closs-Lopez (Koppy kick)
HIG — Sinjin Kirkpatric 5 pass from Bloom (kick failed)
CDO — Smith 2 run (kick blocked)
CDO — Smith 2 run (Koppy kick)
HIG — Johnson 8 run (Cayden Miller kick)
First Downs: HIG 18, CDO 26
Rushing: HIG 35-185, CDO 39-215
Passing (comp.-att.-TD-INT): HIG 22-38-261-2-1, CDO 12-22-266-2-0
Fumbles-lost: HIG 6-2, CDO 1-1
Penalties-yards: HIG 8-39, CDO 6-45
Higley 6 18 0 7 -- 31
Canyon del Oro 14 7 6 7 -- 34