Despite a tough challenge from the Flagstaff Eagles and their defense, the Coconino Panthers put up points when they needed them on Friday night.
A blocked punt recovered for a touchdown gave the Panthers (3-7, 3-3) the lead on the second play of the fourth quarter and a 1-yard touchdown run clinched it with less than a minute remaining.
Coconino’s 22-13 victory snaps its three-game losing streak to Flagstaff (2-8, 1-5), giving the Coconino seniors a win. Coconino's Cesar Andrade and Flagstaff's Chance Halstead were awarded the Cromer Awards as the players of the game for each side.
“I know all my senior classmen were ready. We wanted this W,” said senior Ray Crank, who was responsible for the first 14 points for Coconino.
Crank recovered the blocked punt in the Flagstaff end zone with 11:39 remaining on the clock. His extra point following the score ended up being the winning point.
“It was really exciting; I was glad I had my brothers right there,” Crank said.
Crank and junior Weston Smith ran well against the Flagstaff defense most of the evening, but were stopped on fourth down three times in the second half.
With drives stalling at the Flagstaff 2, 23 and 1-yard line, Coconino’s offense seemingly could not get over the hump.
“I can’t tell you how many times I said it,” said Coconino head coach Jeremiah Smith. “I walked by the crowd and told the student section. I walked by the students, by every adult that was down on the sidelines. 'Just don’t stop believing, you have got to believe. If you believe, we are going to get there.'”
Finally, after taking over possession at the Flagstaff 46 with three minutes remaining, Coconino made the drive to clinch the game. Aided by a pair of Flagstaff personal fouls, the Panthers pounded the ball in behind Smith for a 1-yard score with just 26 seconds left. Looking to clinch the game, Smith ran in a two-point conversion to give Coconino a nine-point lead.
“Everybody got down a little bit,” Crank said. “But we were like 'we have got to pick it up, this is our game,' and we came back.”
The two touchdowns were the lone points of the half, as Flagstaff’s offense struggled to get going after a strong opening quarter. The Panthers held the Eagles to just three first downs in the second half.
While the two defenses dominated the second half, early on it looked as though the game would be high-scoring. Coconino and Flagstaff traded scores on their first two possessions of the game.
Moving the ball downfield, the Panthers put the game’s first points on the board in just 2:22. Crank capped off the eight-play, 76-yard drive with a 25-yard run to the right side.
However, Flagstaff responded with 13 unanswered points in the first quarter. On the ensuing drive, the Eagles moved the ball near midfield before sophomore Christian Singleton took a sack on third down.
Rather than punt it away, senior Ben Anderson took the snap on fourth down and threw over to Tyler Cullum, who was split wide to the right. Cullum battled his way to a first down that set up Flagstaff’s first score.
“We were at the 40-yard line and were going to gain 20 yards on the punt,” said Flagstaff head coach Robbie Rusconi. “We had been kind of practicing that all year and Ben Anderson may be our second best quarterback on the team. Tyler had a great individual effort for that first down.”
Now set up at the Coconino 25, Singleton ran for a short gain before sophomore Austin Rhoda broke through for 18 yards to get the ball down to the 6. Junior Nick Christopher broke through the line on the very next play to tie the game at 7.
The Eagles’ defense stepped up and forced a three-and-out. After taking over at its own 32, Flagstaff quickly took its first lead of the game.
Flagstaff moved senior Paul Evtimov from tackle to tight end during the week and immediately made the move pay off. Singleton took a quick drop and connected with Evtimov for a short gain. Breaking free of a tackler, Evtimov ran for a 68-yard touchdown to give the Eagles the lead with 3:00 left in the first quarter. The 13-7 lead, after the extra point was blocked, held for the remainder of the half.
“That was just a general pop pass; they came up and were doing a great job of stopping our off-tackle,” Rusconi said.
Coconino threatened seconds before halftime, but the Flagstaff defense and held on for a stop as the clock expired.
With Smith again gaining chunks of yards early in the drive, the Panthers drove into Eagle territory in just two plays. After taking a sack, senior Jess Kuehl rolled to his right and escaped for a 15-yard run on third-and-13.
Set up at the 10, Kuehl dumped off to Crank with 30 seconds remaining, but the running back could not reach the end zone. Kuehl rushed his team to the line, but his sneak attempt came up short at the 2 as the half expired.
“Our offense didn’t put us in a lot of good spots there in the second half and our defense rose to the occasion time after time,” Rusconi said. “The end of that half, that is a huge play for our guys. That is a big momentum booster and if we have a couple things go different, you never know.”