For the second and third quarters of its Division II top 5 battle with No. 5 Tucson Ironwood RIdge, No. 1 Centennial seemed in complete command.
Then, in a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, things went from cruise control to DEFCON 4. With just under 11 minutes left, Ironwood Ridge (5-1) junior safety John Klass intercepted senior quarterback Justin Sanchez and returned it to the Nighthawks' 47.
A pass interference call and a 19-yard scramble by junior quarterback Tyler Williams, complete with a hurdle set up the Nighthawks. Senior tailback Mitch Fischer powered in from four yards out to cut the Coyotes lead to 14-7.
Then, Ironwood Ridge's directional squib kick found a dead spot on the turf, Centennial's return team was caught napping and the Nighthawks fell on the ball. Suddenly, the visitors were 24 yards away from tying the game, after not having a trip to the red zone in the first three quarters.
"Coming into that series, we really knew we had to step it up," senior defensive tackle Josh Stevens said. "Our defense bottled them up and we got the win."
After a first-down drop in the end zone, the Coyotes snuffed the threat, stuffed the quarterback on 4th and 7 at the 21 with 6:43 left in the game. Centennial (6-0) won 21-7.
"That was so important when the defense stopped them there. That would have been a real momentum changer and I'm not sure we would have been able to get it back," Centennial coach Richard Taylor said.
With junior tailback Jalen Ortiz out due to a third-quarter concussion, the offense was mostly in the hands of third-string sophomore tailback Matt Rodriguez. But he didn't play like a backup, gaining 52 yards on five carries, including a huge 28-yard pickup to set up first and goal.
Senior Zach Hoffpauir reprised his role as the Coyotes' closer, gaining the final seven yards. His four-yard run up the gut with 3:01 left sealed it.
For the capper, Hoffpauir intercepted Williams in the final minute.
Centennial moved the ball in the first quarter but could not score. Ironwood Ridge did not gain a first down in its first two drives, however a senior Tyler Beeneu muffed the return and the Nighthawks recovered at the Coyote 46.
Their momentum lasted all of one play. Williams dropped back and floated a deep out directly into the arms of senior cornerback Troy Hawthorne, who galloped down the sideline 60 yards to put Centennial up 7-0.
"This is what we come to Centennial for. Before the play, the coach (Andrew Taylor) said watch the pass. He really set me up for the interception," Hawthorne said. "It's the best feeling in the world. They said I was running fast, but I felt kind of slow."
Three game minutes later, another 60-yard bolt gave the Coyotes a cushion. After spending most of the first quarter on the perimeter, Centennial called a draw for Ortiz, who burst through a gaping hole and raced 60 yards untouched.
Until Ironwood Ridge's sudden comeback, the Coyotes appeared a play away from putting away the game. The Nighthawks drove to the Centennial 25 near halftime but Rodriguez, playing linebacker, stopped fourth-down run.
Centennial drove to the Nighthawks 10 in the third quarter but stalled and missed a field goal. They moved again before the interception.
Part of the problem was the Nighthawks' ground-bound style, which rarely gained large chunks of yardage but moved the ball enough to control the clock and gave Centennial fewer possessions than in a typical game.
"I can see why they were undefeated. They are physical. Their offensive and defensive lines are athletic," Taylor said. "They're very well-coached."
Still the Coyote defense was dominant, even without junior defensive end Marcus Farria, sitting out for disciplinary reasons.
Fischer ripped off some runs late, but was mostly held in check by a unit that swarmed him before he could get into second gear.
"Our defensive staff, especially Andrew Taylor, watched a lot of film on Fischer. We knew we had to get him before he got going," Taylor said. "We're better off getting him to run east and west rather than north and south — when he gets his shoulders squared and he's coming downhill."
Centennial also held down Williams on zone read option runs, but the speedy quarterback proved troublesome on scrambles.
In all, Fischer gained 86 yards on 19 carries, while Williams had 71 on 20 totes (including sacks). The Nighthawks were averaging 288 yards per game on the ground coming in.
"We knew coming into this game that the d-line really needed to step it up. We bottled them up when we had to," Stevens said. "No. 8 (Williams) is really a terrific athlete. We'd seen on the film that Fischer made about 80 percent of the plays, so we were all on Fischer. But what we weren't expecting was the quarterback — we had him in the back of our heads, but still."
The Coyotes' backfield trio split the workload — Ortiz and Rodriguez had eight carries each, while Hoffpauir added seven. They combined for 211 yards. Sanchez moved the chains, completing nine of 13 passes for 80 yards.
"When Jalen gets a crease, he goes," Taylor said. "Matt ran really hard. Defensively, they were doing some different things than we had prepared for. I think our balance of run and pass was the difference."