An inch or two here, a second or two there; It’s the little things that, on occasion, certainly have the power to decide the outcome of a football game.
But — proven once again during Friday night’s 5A-I state semifinal matchup between Mesa, seeded 11th, and No. 2 Phoenix Mountain Pointe — there has been and will always be only four downs.
Mesa held on during a wild finish, defeating the previously unbeaten Pride, 14-10, at Mesquite High School in Gilbert after a wild second half that included a game-saving goal-line stand, a seesaw defensive battle between two above-average offensive outfits, and a quarterback spike on fourth down to cap a scene of sheer chaos on the Mountain Pointe sideline.
“It’s a game we could have won. They deserved to win, but we deserved to win, too, but didn’t. It was a heck of a game,” Mountain Pointe coach Norris Vaughan said.
Heading into this game, neither team would have likely predicted that the “game-winning” score — at least in a game decided by less than a touchdown — would have come in the second quarter. But that’s exactly what Dallin Parker’s 13-yard pass to Devontae Kellybrew turned out to be for Mesa (9-4). Kellybrew, lined up at fullback, broke off his block and turned around at the line of scrimmage and looked toward Parker, who was all but sacked. Parked lobbed the ball in the air, Kellybrew caught it and raced right up the center of the field for the score. Even if nobody knew it, with 1:30 left in the second quarter, the final score was put up on the board.
“That was it. That was the only (drive) we had,” Mesa coach Kelley Moore said. “They sniffed it out just a little bit late, thank goodness.”
That’s not to say neither team had its chances in the second half. While Mountain Pointe’s defense held tough for multiple three-and-outs in the third and fourth quarters while the Jackrabbits clung to the lead, Mesa’s defense made plenty of big plays of its own to preserve the team’s ninth win of the season.
On the opening drive of the second half, Mountain Pointe (12-1) took the kick trailing 14-10 and, like the Pride had so many times before this season, marched the length of the field toward their opponent’s end zone. Only this time, the Pride, who had trouble generating momentum out of the backfield most of the night, were stopped on third and fourth down just inches from the goal line, preserving the Jackrabbits’ lead. That stop ultimately proved to be the difference, as the 14-10 score held up to send Mesa to its first state title game since 1992.
“Jeez. We thought he was in the end zone,” Vaughan said. “We really thought he was in.”
Neither team mustered much momentum offensively after that stand, although Mountain Pointe had its chances. The Pride entered Mesa territory multiple times in the fourth quarter. The first chance came when they took over near midfield on a punt and pushed the Pride all the way to a first down at the Mesa 12-yard line. But Mountain Pointe quarterback Austin Blom was intercepted in the end zone on an eventual third-and-16 play. On that failed drive, The Pride used their last of three second-half timeouts with 8:25 to go on the clock — a scenario that spelled doom for Mountain Pointe as it scrambled late in the game.
Mountain Pointe had two more chances to get back on the board after that interception. But the Pride gave the ball back on a punt with about three minutes to play before stopping Mesa on a three-and-out and getting it back for the final time with 1:31 to go and trailing by four. Blom completed a pair of big passes to receiver Garrett Holle for first downs — Holle managed to get out of bounds on both plays as well. But a pair of sacks on Blom ultimately set up the fateful moment where, with less than 20 seconds on the clock and the Pride sideline erupting for the team to get a play — any play — off in time, Blom took the snap and spiked the ball to the turf, obviously unaware among the commotion what down it was.
“We were just trying to line it up and throw one up, but you can’t take a sack in that situation, and we got sacked. But yeah … that shouldn’t have happened,” Vaughan said.
Mesa drew first blood near the tail end of the first half, when running back Jaymen Green scored on an 8-yard run. The extra point by Tyler Ryan made it 7-0 Jackrabbits. Mountain Pointe countered in the second quarter with a 31-yard Jon Mora field goal and a 54-yard touchdown by De’Andre Currie, putting the Pride up 10-7. Kellybrew’s scoring reception gave Mesa the lead back.
Currie ran for 137 yards and that long score on 17 carries, but fumbled four times, although Mountain Pointe held on to the ball on all four occurrences. Currie gained just 27 yards in the second half. Davon Jones carried the ball 19 times for 80 yards for the Pride as well. The duo each finish with more than 1,600 yards rushing on the season through 13 games.
Statistically, Parker was Mesa’s most efficient offensive player, completing 4 of 9 passes for 77 yards and a score. Mesa’s attack was balanced if nothing else, with the Jackrabbits running 39 total plays, picking up Parker’s 77 yards through the air and 81 yards rushing, spread out over six different ball carriers.
“I don’t think we had a yard on the ground. They just stuffed us all day and all night,” Moore said.
The loss ends a miraculous turnaround season for Mountain Pointe, which went 2-8 a year ago before improving to 12-0 entering Friday night in Vaughan’s first year as Pride coach.
“We have to appreciate what we did,” said Currie, a senior playing his last game for the Pride, “but we also have to appreciate what we could have done.”
And for the Jackrabbits, a 5 p.m. rematch with top-seeded Chandler Hamilton — which defeated Mesa 43-22 in a Fiesta Region matchup earlier this season — at University of Phoenix Stadium Dec. 12 awaits.
“We’re going to state. Wow. First time in a long time. Nobody expected us to do that in the beginning, but Coach Moore told us if we worked hard, we could do anything,” Kellybrew said. “Mesa High never gives up. You’re going to have to tackle us every play of every quarter of every game. It doesn’t matter if we’re not winning. We’re going to keep pounding at you. We’ll never give up.”