It started out as an optical illusion. A Highland pass on its first drive was tipped multiple times and landed in a receiver’s hands for a touchdown and a 7-0 Hawks lead over No. 1 Hamilton.
The reality two hours and 20 minutes later was no illusion. The visiting Hawks played flawless football and put an abrupt end to the defending 5A state champions’ 20-game winning streak with a convincing 37-15 triumph in front of a stunned Huskies’ homecoming crowd at Jerry Loper Field.
‘‘Honestly, it’s not a big surprise to me that we could win this game,’’ Highland coach Preston Jones said. ‘‘Our kids played like I know they could. We put it all together tonight and didn’t make mistakes. Our defense was just great.’’
There was little that wasn’t great about this one for Highland (5-3, 2-1), which is now in the thick of the Fiesta Region title race and firmly planted in the playoff race. The Hawks attempted two onside kicks and recovered both. They recovered a Hamilton onside kick in the final period to thwart any late rally by the Huskies (7-1, 2-1). And they refused to punt the ball to Hamilton game-breaker Mekell Wesley by either kicking it out of bounds or quick
kicking on fourth-and-short situations.
John Hershberger, who rushed 13 times for 112 yards, scored two touchdowns in the first half, and quarterback Ryan Fair was on the receiving end of the game-opening score (a halfback pass from Brian Mistro). Those three touchdowns and the first of three Patrick Huston field goals staked Highland to a 24-7 halftime lead.
All the things Highland hadn’t been able to do against quality opponents earlier this season, it accomplished Friday. In three previous games against ranked opponents, the Hawks scored just 17 points. They also did not commit a turnover against the Huskies and had one penalty for five yards — a false start midway through the final period.
‘‘Coach Jones instilled in us all week that we could win this game,’’ Fair said. ‘‘That first touchdown got us going, and we just kept going.’’
Hamilton was limited to a season-low 237 yards of offense. They answered the Mistro-to-Fair touchdown with an 80-yard march of their own to tie the game at 7. Quarterback Travis Dixon threw the first of his two touchdown passes to Lucas Kirkland to complete the march. Hershberger and running mate Wesley Orth (106 yards on 20 carries and one touchdown) led a punishing ground attack on the next drive, another one of 80 yards capped by Hershberger’s 1-yard run.
A three-and-out forced Hamilton to punt, and on the third play of the second quarter, Hershberger struck again. This time he shed a couple tackles on a sweep to the right and outraced defenders for an 80-yard score.
‘‘They played really well, give them credit,’’ Hamilton coach John Wrenn said. ‘‘I didn’t get the job done tonight, and I take the blame. Everything they could have done to us, they did. I got soft this week, and we got it handed to us.’’
Given Hamilton’s domination over its last 20 games, most thought a second-half comeback would be a given. Hamilton got the ball to begin the second half but was penalized after the kickoff return and again prior to punting with 8:52 to play in the third period.
Highland took advantage of the shanked punt and bled the clock for seven minutes to get Huston’s second field goal and improve the lead to 27-7.
Hamilton even tried a fake punt at its 26 in the waning seconds of the third period to try and get on track, but it fell a half-yard short of the first down. Huston cashed in with a 37-yard field goal early in the fourth period making it 30-7.
Dixon finished the game 9-of-17 passing for 146 yards and two TDs. He also rushed for 51 yards but threw his first interception, which led to one of Highland’s field goals.