While the Flagstaff Eagles dominated the opening 23 minutes of Friday night’s game in the Walkup Skydome, the Thunderbird Chiefs controlled the final 25 en route to the win.
Ending Flagstaff’s perfect start, the No. 22 Chiefs (3-3) knocked off the No. 8 Eagles (5-1, 2-0 Grand Canyon) 35-17 as they nearly matched last year’s result. Just as they did in last season’s 38-14 victory, Thunderbird’s Andy Wittenwyler and Kain Ream carried their team to the win.
After hooking up for a 4-yard score as the first half expired, the pass-catching duo drove down the field for a touchdown on their opening drive of the second half. Clarence Bozeman’s 5-yard touchdown run capped off a drive that never reached third down as the Chiefs’ offense bounced back from the Eagles’ dominant start.
While the Eagles' ball-control ground game led to its top three running backs combining for roughly 140 yards in the first half, Flagstaff rushed for less than 50 yards between the trio and mustered less than 30 yards combined on its final five offensive yards.
A great run to the right by Lucas Salcido, with a cutback at the goal line evading a defender, put Flagstaff ahead 17-14 with 6:07 remaining in the third quarter, the score would be the Eagles’ last as the Chiefs rattled off 21 unanswered points to finish the night.
Thunderbird answered Salcido’s score less than four minutes later as Wittenwyler hit Taren Rose for a 14-yard touchdown following another drive that never reached third down.
Leading 21-17, the Chiefs forced the Eagles into a three-and-out, triggering a hectic stretch that essentially decided the game.
After rolling through the third quarter, a pair of penalties forced Thunderbird into a third-and-30, leading to a punt after Everett Evangelesta and Lemar Smith combined for Flagstaff’s first sack of the night.
However, Flagstaff fumbled a handoff on the second play of its drive, only for Josh Morrow to pick off Wittenwyler’s pass on the first play of Thunderbird’s possession. While the junior returned the ball down to the 24, the Eagles failed to move the ball after three plays and missed their field goal to come up empty after the turnover and excellent field position.
Still ahead by four with 8:18 left in the game, a 10-play, 80-yard drive ate up nearly four minutes of the clock and ended in a 7-yard run by Wittenwyler as the coverage ran after Ream in the end zone.
Stalled on their ensuing drive, Flagstaff attempted to punt the ball away with a little more than three minutes remaining, but a muffed snap led to a defensive score for Thunderbird.
Despite holding the ball for three quarters of the first half and pitching a shutout for the opening 23 minutes, Flagstaff’s defense slipped up in the final minute in the first half, leading to Ream’s score and the tide turning for the second half.
With Wittenwyler looking to Kain Ream, the Chiefs got on the board going into the break despite starting their drive with 1:08 on the clock. Wittenwyler found Ream in the left corner of the end zone as the half expired to cap off a drive that included a fourth-and-2 conversion in the middle of the field.
Flagstaff blocked the extra point, but entered halftime with just an 11-6 lead despite holding the ball for roughly 18 minutes of the 24-minute half. Controlling the clock with its run game, Morrow totaled 55 yards on 10 carries and Salcido led the team with 70 yards on 12 carries in the first half.
Flagstaff opened the game with a 41-yard field goal to cap off its opening drive, as Oscar Castruita connected after the drive died out on third-and-3 from the 24. A three-and-out by Thunderbird allowed Flagstaff to keep the Chiefs offense off the field and out of rhythm early on, but the chance to take a two-possession lead in the first quarter ended as a tripping penalty and a sack forced the Eagles into a third-and-38.
Gaining some of the lost yards back, Flagstaff sent Castruita out to attempt a 47-yard field goal, but the try fell just short despite being right down the middle.
After Thunderbird ended its second drive with a punt following a botched shotgun snap, Flagstaff committed three false start penalties and allowed a sack before Castruita’s punt rolled to the Thunderbird 1 and Salcido’s first-down tackle in the end zone added two points on a safety for the Eagles.
Granted a short field after the kick by Thunderbird, Josh Thomas and Morrow pounded away for chunks of yards before the latter took a snap from under center and pushed his way into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown and the 11-0 lead with 1:08 left in the half.
Flagstaff hosts Lee Williams next week for a Grand Canyon Region game that kicks off at 7:30 p.m. in the Skydome.