With 4:21 left in their Black Canyon Region opener at Washington, Cactus players and coaches could exhale for the first time in three weeks.
That's when Washington senior quarterback Devonte Smythe's fourth-down pass fell incomplete and the Cobras regained the ball with a 15-point lead.
After a 42-41 overtime victory against Scottsdale Saguaro and a 49-42 triple overtime loss at Queen Creek, Friday's 43-28 victory over Washington (5-1, 0-1) qualifies as a breather
for Cactus (5-1, 1-0).
"As a team, we would come out slow and sloppy and that was our biggest problem," Senior tailback Lashunn Norris said. "We lost to Queen Creek and that was a big realization to the whole team. We knew we had to come out strong."
The Cobras were in that position largely thanks to the running of Norris behind an offensive line that blew the Rams off the ball all night. Never was this more true than in the clinching fourth-quarter drive.
Cactus started the quarter with the ball at its 20. After picking up a first down, senior center Dalton Trost hobbled off with an ankle injury.
Sophomore Ryan Kern filled in, and the line didn't miss a beat. Cactus picked up a first down before a fourth-down snap when Washington jumped offsides.
"When Trost got hurt, Kern stepped up and did a phenomenal job," Norris said. "He did what he was supposed to do until Trost came back."
Two penalties backed the offense up, and it faced a fourth-and-seven at the Washington 43. Norris ran up the gut, bouncing off tacklers for a 12-yard gain.
Four plays later, on fourth and one from the 23, he did again, churning out three yards. On the next snap, Norris got his reward in the form of a 20-yard touchdown that gave the Cobras breathing room.
"The other big thing was, it was a six minute drive in the fourth quarter," Cactus coach Larry Fetkenhier said.
It was the capper for what Fetkenhier called by far Norris' best game of the season. The tailback finished with 352 yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries.
Cactus needed all of those yards to keep pace with Smythe and his fleet of five shifty, playmaking receivers. Washington served notice early that it could hang with the defending 4A-II champions.
On their first third-down play, Smythe tossed a short swing pass to junior wide receiver Stephen Lopez, who weaved through the defense for a 69-yard gain. On the next play, 290-pound senior fullback Greg Price bowled in from a yard out to give the Rams a 7-0 lead.
It took Cactus five plays 54 seconds to tie on Norris' 15-yard burst. One minute later, they led 13-7.
Junior defensive end Mike Ledesma sacked Symthe and forced a fumble, which junior cornerback Chris Jennings returned to the Rams' 9. Norris ran it in on the next snap.
Washington regained the lead with another display of elusiveness. Senior wide receiver Devonte Nelson took an end around pitch and headed left. Hemmed in by the defense, he managed to reverse his field and scamper 55 yards for the score.
Smythe and senior receiver Jordan Kline hooked up on what would have been an 82-yard touchdown, but a hold downfield brought the ball back to the Cactus 19.
The Rams drove to the 7 before the defense stiffened. Senior linebacker Thomas Wilson's fourth-down sack ended the threat.
Cactus got into the big-play act, starting its next drive with a 53-yard Norris run. Senior quarterback Deke Cisco finished it with a one-yard scoring run.
Jennings forced another fumble deep in Cobra territory. Norris broke loose again, this time for 77 yards. He scored again with a five-yard run to give Cactus a 27-14 lead.
Yet the visitors could not pull away. Three minutes later, Nelson scored from three yards out to cut Cactus' lead to six.
The second half began at the same frenetic tempo. In less than two minutes, the Cobras scored. Cisco tossed a boundary screen to senior wide receiver Andrew Zaremski, who scooted 17 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
In less than a minute the Rams were within six again. A late hit, and a pass interference call aided the drive, and Smythe scrambled for a 15-yard score.
Things finally slowed down after that. Cactus punted and Washington lined up to do the same.
But the snap sailed over Smythe's head and out of the end zone. The safety gave Cactus a 36-28 cushion and the chance to score more.
"That was huge," Fetkenhier said. "But then we've got great field position and we give the damn ball right back."
A fumble recovered by Washington kept the Rams alive, On a fourth-and-seven play from the Cactus 25, Smythe chucked a jump ball and Jennings grabbed it in the end zone.
This started Cactus' game-defining drive. The Cobras rolled up 439 yards on the ground Friday without their star offensive tackle Ryan Nowicki, who had his arm in a sling. Junior Antero Taddie stepped in.
"Our thing is, it's somebody else's turn," Fetkenhier said. "We are not going to use injuries as an excuse."
And in the second half, a defensive unit that has taken some heat recently stepped up. Cactus, gashed for 380 yards, in the first half, limited the Rams to 126 yards in the second half.
Fetkenhier said the defense's improvement has little to do with changing its game plan against Washington's four-receiver formations and mammoth running back.
"II think sometimes that stuff gets blown out of proportion," Fetkenhier said. "We just kept after (Smythe) and tried to stop him from making plays."