Desert Ridge and Hamilton were moved from prime time to undercard because Fox Sports Arizona thought Chaparral-Centennial was a better matchup.
Hamilton may have eventually won its third straight 5A-I state title, but it was must-see TV from start to finish.
The plucky Jaguars kept up with the vaunted Huskies until the bitter end, but Parker Rasmussen’s fourth-down scramble in Hamilton territory with 36 seconds to go ended up short of a first down as top-seeded Hamilton held on for a 21-13 victory on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“How’s that for a main event?” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said.
Hamilton was the overwhelming favorite to win this game, but didn’t have a lead bigger than 11 points at any point in the contest.
The Huskies are used to winning games easily, so the last few moments were tense on the sidelines.
“Our defense is good, but I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Hamilton wide receiver Tanner Clay said.
The Hamilton defense had a bend-but-don’t-break feel to it the entire way, and clamped down enough on No. 10 seed Desert Ridge’s final drive to preserve the team’s 40th straight victory. The Jaguars started at their own 2-yard line with six minutes remaining, and advanced the ball to the Hamilton 25 before turning it over on downs.
“They were pushing the ball,” Hamilton safety Malcolm Holland said. “But when they called timeout and we came in the huddle, we just let each other know that we wanted it. This was ours. We had been working way too hard to let it go. We knew they weren’t going to score.”
Rasmussen ran a bootleg on the final play, although it was designed for him to stay in the pocket as receivers crossed in the middle of the field. Since he rolled out, Rasmussen didn’t have very many options to throw to, and tucked the ball, coming up eight yards short of the first-down marker.
Hamilton is the second 5A team to win three state championships in a row.
“I can’t even tell you what kind of emotions I’m feeling right now,” Hamilton quarterback Kyren Poe said.
Hamilton was nursing a 7-3 lead late in the second quarter when Desert Ridge rolled the dice on a 4th-and-2 from midfield. Rasmussen tried a quick slant to Paris Clark, but Reggie Daniels read the pass all the way, picking it off and returning it 52 yards for a score to give the Huskies a 14-3 lead at halftime.
Kendyl Taylor fumbled early in the third quarter, and Desert Ridge cut the deficit to 14-10 when Jordan Becerra scored from 2 yards out. The Huskies answered on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Poe to Clay on their next possession for a 21-10 lead, but wouldn’t score again.
Desert Ridge kicker Danny Berzins made it a one-possession deficit when he nailed a 22-yard field goal with 9:24 to go, but the Jaguars only had one more drive to tie the game, and it ended up short.
Poe was 11-of-16 passing for 217 yards and two scores, and added 56 yards on the ground. Clay had four catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. Hamilton only rushed for 105 yards because the Jaguars focused on stopping it, but the Huskies made them pay through the air.
“You just take what the defense gives you,” Poe said.
Becerra ran for 136 yards on 30 carries and scored Desert Ridge’s lone offensive touchdown. Running back Joey Counts had 18 carries for 124 yards. Desert Ridge rushed for 268 yards in the contest, 57 more than any other Hamilton opponent this season.
The Huskies had not beaten an Arizona team by fewer than 14 points this year. Desert Ridge, meanwhile, was a double digit seed that many counted out in the first round against Chandler.
Instead, the Jaguars beat the Wolves, then Gilbert and Desert Vista to make it here. Many expected a rout, as the Huskies were bigger and more talented across the board.
However, Desert Ridge’s storybook run didn’t end until less than a minute to go in the championship game.
“I’m from a small town,” Hathcock said. “When you bring in a small-town attitude — being brothers — then good things happen.
“If everybody played the way people expect, there wouldn’t be such a thing as competition.”