Coach Mike Lapsley said it “was like a deep breath of fresh air” to get back on the football field for the Coconino Panthers Saturday in Flagstaff. The feeling did not last long, as the Panthers started slow, but Coconino (3-0, 1-0 Grand Canyon) dominated Lee Williams (3-3, 0-2 Grand Canyon) in the second half to win 29-10 at Cromer Field.
After a week off due to COVID-19 precautions that canceled last Friday’s game, Coconino’s offense did not execute well, committed several penalties and was unable to move the ball consistently. Aided by stellar rushing performances by junior Cooper French (184 yards, 1 TD) and senior Gabriel Callado (87 yards, 2 TD), the Panthers scored on each of their drives in the second half, though, and won handily.
“To me, that first half, what I told those guys is that we lost our identity. We were uncertain and that’s not who we are. But we got back to who we are in the second half,” Lapsley said.
The first quarter was slow for both teams. Coconino forced the Volunteers to punt on the opening drive, and had a long offensive drive themselves but fumbled the ball away near the end of the period.
The Panthers forced another punt on the ensuing Lee Williams drive, blocked the punt and recovered it at the Volunteers 36-yard line. However, a couple of penalties and miscues forced the Panthers to give the ball back, not capitalizing on the solid field position.
Finally, it was the Panthers defense that got Coconino on the scoreboard. Senior defensive lineman Matias Ortiz sacked the Lee Williams quarterback, who fumbled out of the back of the end zone for a safety to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead with 7:16 left in the half.
“I was just doing my job, and it just ended up being a sack,” Ortiz said, “There were two guys -- the lineman and the running back both hit me -- and I just did what I usually do, which is get them off of me and go get the quarterback.”
The Volunteers scored their lone touchdown of the game on their next drive. Lee Williams ran a reverse, but sophomore receiver Devin White snuck away. The running back looked up, threw to White, who was wide open and scored easily to give the Volunteers a 7-2 lead.
“I give it props. It was an absolute great play and they caught us off guard. And I give credit where it’s due,” Lapsley said.
They added a 38-yard field goal on the last play of the second quarter to take a 10-2 advantage at the half.
Lapsley said at halftime the offensive staff made a few slight adjustments, but mostly stressed that the team needed to commit far fewer penalties and simply execute the game plan.
“The more important aspect was lighting a fire under these guys, making sure they’re playing Coconino football,” Lapsley said.
The change worked, as Coconino pounded the Volunteers with consecutive runs to start the third quarter. The Panthers drove the field, getting leverage from the offensive linemen and allowing their stable of running backs to hit open holes.
Finally, Callado took a handoff to the outside and scored a touchdown with 7:21 left in the third quarter to trim the Volunteers lead to 10-9.
Callado said he could feel the momentum shift in Coconino’s way from that point.
“I was just seeing that we stepped it up and started flowing, got back in a groove, and after we did that we started making some awesome plays,” he said. “Our offensive line stepped up and made some awesome blocks, and we wouldn’t have been anywhere without them.”
The Panthers defense responded by forcing a punt. Coconino did not give up a point in the second half, and were especially effective in stopping the Volunteers passing game that had beaten them at times in the first half.
“Our defense definitely kept us in the game,” Ortiz said.
Coconino ran the ball repeatedly on its next three drives, ending with touchdowns by Callado, French and junior Griffin Benedict, respectively. Benedict’s score, with just 54 seconds left in the game after a long run, effectively sealed the victory for the Panthers.
Ortiz said after the game that the Panthers still have a lot of room to improve, as they will try to keep their undefeated streak going moving forward. Coconino will play five consecutive weeks to finish the regular season, including three road contests and four Grand Canyon region games.
For Saturday, though, it felt nice to walk away victorious.
“We still have got work to do,” Ortiz said. “We’ll celebrate today, get back to work on Monday.”
The Panthers will host Prescott (4-1, 1-0 Grand Canyon) in a region battle on Friday.