A wise prep football coach once said that three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of those are bad.
Despite playing stout defense early on - including a pair of fourth down stops, three first half sacks and, time after time again, pressuring the quarterback - it took just 24 seconds for Gilbert Mesquite's upset chances against Phoenix Desert Vista to pretty much go up in smoke.
Inside a minute to go in the first half, a 37-yard Scotty Goldfein field goal, followed just two plays later by a 44-yard pick-six by Nick Farina, turned a 7-7 game into a 17-7 Desert Vista lead; the Thunder would build on that after halftime to eventually win 31-14 Friday over the host Wildcats.
"Our defense came up big right there in the end (of the first half)," Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said. "Our defense played great all night, and that was a big, big play for us."
Even though Mesquite (3-5) came out of the locker room in the third quarter with virtually none of the momentum, the Wildcats clawed their way back a bit, managing an eight-minute, 15-play scoring drive in the third quarter to cut the Thunder lead to 17-14; Penili Pulotu scored the touchdown from two yards out.
But Desert Vista's Hunter Rodriguez - after struggling in the earlygoing to not only find his receivers, but to elude the Mesquite defense thanks to a consistent eight-man front from the Wildcats - was precise and efficient through the air and crafty on the ground in the late third and early fourth quarters. That was especially true on one drive in particular, which saw Rodriguez complete passes of 16, 9 and 10 yards (Ryan Ortega, Michael Arredondo and Matt Smith, respectively, were on the receiving end) before finishing it off with an 18-yard bootleg for a touchdown. Rodriguez, known much more for what he does with his arm than his feet, took the snap, rolled out left and reached over the pylon while getting hit at the goalline to make the game 24-14.
"They just blitzed like crazy." said Rodriguez, who finished 8-of-14 passing for 63 yards. "They kept blitzing."
Added Hinds: "When you really need him, you can always count on (Rodriguez) to come up big for us, and he did there in the second half."
Both teams played short-handed - Desert Vista (7-1) was especially depleted on its offensive line, and Mesquite (3-5) had almost its entire 11-man starting lineup go both ways most of the night.
But the score was not nearly indicative of how close the game was throughout.
Both teams were their own enemies at times, too; Desert Vista had a 65-yard run by Dominic Kereluk on the first play of the second half called back due to holding, while Mesquite had a 76-yard touchdown in the 1st quarter by Anthony Lopez waved off.
Desert Vista also failed to convert twice on fourth down early on, and jumped offside to give Mesquite a first down when the Wildcats were trying to convert on 4th and short.
But both Kereluk and Lopez ended up as the ball carrier of record for their respective teams. Kereluk finished with 70 yards on 15 carries - including the game's final score, a one-yard touchdown run in the fourth on fourth-and-goal.
Lopez rebounded from having his long run called back to score on an even longer one, an 84-yarder late in the first - this one counted - en route to 118 yards on 13 carries.
Mesquite quarterback Steven Bevan completed 7-of-16 passes for 71 yards, but was picked off twice - the interception for a touchdown by Farina, and again inside two minutes to play with the Wildcats driving deep in Desert Vista territory by Smith to seal the game.
"We were playing hard on both sides of the ball, it's just little errors," Mesquite coach Matt Gracey said. "Five plays is the difference between 20 points. You don't get a penalty on an 80-yard touchdown run, you don't throw a pick for six, there are a lot of things there."
Gracey stressed his frustration with the fact that as good as his team may be and as hard as Mesquite has been playing, the results haven't been there in the win column for the Wildcats.
"It's just frustrating. I feel bad for these guys because they've busted their tail and they're a good football team," he said. "It's hard to play 10 playoff games so you can make the playoffs.
"There's not that much difference between a 7-1 team and a 3-5 (team), except for schedules. ... It's been a meat grinder."
For Desert Vista, Friday's outing was as much about rebounding from last week's 35-10 loss to Hamilton - still the Thunder's only loss of the 2011 season.
"This game was really important for us to make a statement after that," Rodriguez said. "It says a lot about our team, that we're not just going to give up when things get hard."
Hinds said that although 7-1 all but assures the Thunder of a playoff bid, he's not taking anything for granted - and he's going to do everything he can to make sure his team doesn't, either.
"I never feel comfortable," Hinds said.