Mesa Red Mountain wasn’t intimidated by vaunted Peoria Centennial — even with the unbeaten Coyotes coming to east Mesa on Friday night with a No. 4 national ranking, a 34-game winning streak and three straight state 5A-II titles.
“No, not at all, we’re not intimidated by anybody,” Red Mountain coach Jim Jones said. “It’s just all about playing football.”
It didn’t look like the Lions were intimidated even after a quick start by the Coyotes, putting Red Mountain in a 14-0 hole.
“We’ve faced plenty of hard teams, fourth in the nation doesn’t mean anything,” Lions quarterback John O’Connor said. “Just a bunch of 17- and 18-year-old kids like us. But we just let down in the second half.”
The Coyotes (9-0), behind 203 yards rushing by Anthony Hughes — 63 of them on the second play from scrimmage and a 65-yard romp in the third quarter — routed Red Mountain 52-14 on Friday night but not before the Lions gave Centennial a scare for the first two quarters.
After trailing just 17-14 at the half, O’Connor threw two quick interceptions at the start of the third quarter and then fumbled on a sack — all of which Centennial turned into touchdowns — and any thoughts of an upset were lost. Seven turnovers did in the Lions.
“Our team was fine, I did a couple of things that were stupid,” O’Connor said. “I put that on my shoulders, those two plays right there. I have to fix that up.”
Jones added, “When you turn the ball over two or three times in our own red zone, you just can’t ask the defense ... that’s tough.”
It is tough for the Lions, who have lost three straight since their 5-0 start and were tied for sixth in power points going into the night.
It doesn’t get any easier as Red Mountain travels to Chandler Hamilton and then finishes with Phoenix Desert Vista at home.
Meanwhile, Centennial, ranked fourth in the nation by USA Today but second in power points to Scottsdale Chaparral, stayed on track for another state championship run.
But it wasn’t until Tevin Ray intercepted O’Connor 90 seconds into the second half that Centennial began looking like the much-hyped team. Ray picked off O’Connor at the 28 and returned it 14 yards, setting up quarterback Dain McFarland’s naked bootleg pass to a wide open Ryan Leslie for a 4-yard score.
Then, on the next possession, on a second-down play, O’Connor was looking for Colton Thornton but Centennial’s Julien Singleton intercepted it at the 25 and returned it 8 yards. The Coyotes got some help by recovering their own fumble on a third-down play, and Hughes scored from 6 yards out. The rout was on.
Red Mountain was driving in Coyotes territory when O’Connor, who threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns, was hit, jarring the ball loose. Hughes took the next play 65 yards for a score.
It was a far cry from when O’Connor hit Derek Molina on a 6-yard scoring strike with 57 seconds left before halftime — Molina squeezed inside the pylon — giving the Lions reason to hope and tying the game at 14.
The Lions had responded to the Centennial start with two long drives engineered by O’Connor.
First, he took 5 1/2 minutes to go 67 yards in 11 plays, with help from a pass interference call on a fourth-and-1 play, to get the Lions on the board. O’Connor hit Elizha Cordova on a 3-yard pass with 5:36 left before the break.
Then, after holding Centennial on a three-and-out, Red Mountain got the ball on its 14, although it was promptly given a false-start penalty and then lost a yard, leaving a third-and-16 at its 8. But O’Connor hit favorite receiver Santiago Lem on a sideline pattern for 27 yards and then Kyle Guanell on the same play for 25 more and the Lions had a first down at the Centennial 37. O’Connor then found Cordova in the Coyote zone for a 19-yard gain and later a 15-yard advance, setting up first-and-goal at the Centennial 6.
Molina, the working horse in the offensive and defensive backfields, caught the tying score and then was crowned homecoming king at halftime.
However, Hughes broke off a 22-yard run and McFarland connected on a 32-yard pass with Gary Ross to set up Jesse Ortiz 30-yard field goal with nine seconds left before halftime and Centennial led 17-14.
Centennial scores on its second play, as Anthony Hughes goes 63 yards up the middle for a 7-0 lead over Red Mountain early in the opening quarter.
After Centennial extends the lead to 14-0, Red Mountain answers with a 3-yard slant for a touchdown from John O'Connor to Elisha Cordova. It's 14-7 Centennial midway through the second quarter.
O'Connor hits Derek Molina on a 6-yd TD pass for Red Mountain to tie things up at 14-14 with just a minute left in the first half.
Centennial hits a field goal just before the half to take a 17-14 lead into the break.
Red Mountain's drive ends on a fumble by O'Connor on a sack, and Centennial's Anthony Hughes goes 65 yards on the next play to break the game open. It's 38-14 Centennial with 2:34 left in the third quarter.
Centennial (7-0) at Red Mountain (5-2)
Time: 7 p.m.
Address: 7301 E. Brown Road, Mesa
Key matchup: Red Mountain has been pushed around defensively the past few weeks, and Centennial's offense - especially the O-line - is as good as it gets in the state. Can the Mountain Lions turn it around quickly and find a way to contain one of the best offenses in the state?
Key stat: Red Mountain has allowed 47.5 points per game the past two contests against Chandler and Phoenix Brophy.
The intrigue: With Centennial and Hamilton its next two opponents, the Mountain Lions are likely to drop further in the power rankings before their finale against Phoenix Desert Vista. Red Mountain can move the ball on Centennial if it stays turnover-free and runs the ball effectively, but keeping up with the three-time defending 5A-II champion is a tall order.