Maybe the tough early schedule is finally paying off.
Maybe Red Mountain – after that 1-4 start – is finally finding its groove.
Maybe the tandem quarterbacks of Caleb Murray-Thomas and Brennen Dobson are hard to defend.
No matter what the reason – it added up to a surprising easy 34-7 Red Mountain win over host Highland on Friday in the first round of the Division I playoffs.
Now it gets a bit harder for the ninth-seeded Lions, who must go to Ahwatukee next week to face No. 1 Mountain Pointe.
“This two quarterback system can be very, very good throughout the playoffs, and we are going to study the film of Mountain Pointe,” said Murray-Thomas. “The night went very well and it showed that we studied on film all week long. We put in hard work this is the type of results we get.”
That early season record was followed by a 4-1 October, with the Lions finding their identity.
“It’s taken us 11 games to have a winning record, but here we are,” Red Mountain coach Ron Wisniewski said. “Here is the thing, we had to survive that. A lot of teams at 1-4 could have gone south and packed it in. These kids did not.”
But first, they had to get past No. 8 Highland, which also saw a resurgence in the second half of the season.
That turned out to be a good assignment since the Lions controlled the offensive line, got a couple of key turnovers, a little luck and held on fourth-and-goal at the 5 late in the first half that could have turned the game.
“We were not ourselves tonight and I’m not sure why,” Highland coach Pete Wahlheim said. “We didn’t do anything in all three phases.”
The turning point that never came was in the waning seconds of the second quarter. Highland showed some life with Blake Young engineering a drive from the Hawk 25. He found Jake Brown on a 22-yard pass play and then Josh Chadwick got a 14-yard run to the Red Mountain 19, leading the Lions to call time out. Highland found itself on first-and-goal at the 12, but Young couldn’t get the ball to his receivers in the end zone on back-to-back plays.
On fourth down, Ryan McCord got open in the left corner of the end zone, caught Young’s pass but couldn’t get a foot down in bounds with four seconds left.
“The bottom line is, a play here and a play there, they beat us tonight, they beat us bad,” Wahlheim said. “
For Red Mountain, Murray-Thomas and Dobson were shuttled in and out even within series, when the down called for it. Generally, Murray-Thomas is a more traditional quarterback with Dobson playing the option/wildcat role. In fact, on Friday, Dobson had a big 54-yard run for a score but also converted a short pass to workhorse Diego Hernandez to open the scoring.
“He mixes it up very well,” Murray-Thomas said of the offensive play calling. “We keep that up during the playoffs, let’s see where that takes us.”
The Lions scored on their first possession and then scored again on their second after a fluky play. Highland’s Tre Tyler blocked a Red Mountain punt but an upback tried to grab it, fumbled and Red Mountain recovered, giving the Lions a fresh set of downs. Murray-Thomas connected on a 16-yard slant pattern with Hernandez and then Dobson got loose down the right side for his long TD run.
“A lot of people were overlooking us because of our record but in our minds we knew it was going to happen,” Dobson said.
The next time Red Mountain had the ball, it used a more conventional running offense to drive from midfield deep into Hawk territory.
In a sign of the night, the Lions scored on first-and-goal at the 1 with Highland's defense a bit confused because Red Mountain was running its no-huddle and when the referee whistled for the clock to restart, the Hawks hesitated. Murray-Thomas easily ran in from the 1.
Red Mountain 34, Highland 7
First Downs: RM 14, High 15
Rushing: RM 37-231, High 32-146
Passing (comp.-att.-yards-TD-INT): RM 11-16-122-1-0, High 7-20-107-0-2
Fumbles-lost: RM 1-0, High 2-1-0
Penalties-yards: RM 8-86, High 9-55
RM 7 14 10 3 -- 34
Highland 0 0 0 7 -- 7
RM-Hernandez 6 pass from Dobson (Tani kick)
RM-Dobson 54 run (Tani kick)
RM-Murray-Thomas 1 run (Tani kick)
RM-Lear 42 run (Tani kick)
RM-Tani 42 FG
RM-Tani 32 FG
H-McCord 15 run (Miller kick)