Friday, Oct. 30, 2015 | 12:02 a.m.
The Jaguars, who would have clinched home-field advantage if not for two forfeit losses, were on the road in a hostile environment with a cold breeze in their faces, with nearly every call going against them.
It’s safe to say that everything that could go wrong, had gone wrong for Desert Pines to that point.
That’s when quarterback Marckell Grayson and senior captain Trevor Nofoa put the team on their backs and carried them 80 yards down the field to take the lead.
“This whole season we’ve been playing through adversity,” Grayson said. “We just have to fight through it and keep pushing.”
On that drive Grayson completed key passes of 28 and 13 yards, and Nofoa punched it into the end zone from one yard out.
Nofoa then ran in the two-point conversion to give the Panthers an 8-7 lead, which they would not relinquish in their 35-7 win over Cheyenne in the first round of the Division I-A playoffs.
Grayson finished the game 12-of-21 for 167 yards and two touchdowns through the air, and added another 62 rushing yards.
But it wasn’t easy for the Jaguars. The offense that has averaged 53.6 points per game in Desert Pines’ seven wins this year was held to only 41 yards in the first quarter.
“We just needed to take what the defense was giving us,” Grayson said. “We came out a little jittery and we had to pick it up.”
Grayson completed only four of his first 11 passes before finishing on an 8-of-10 run.
“We needed to establish the run. I think we threw the ball a little bit too much in the first half,” Desert Pines coach Tico Rodriguez said. “In the second half we imposed our will and they seemed to get tired. We beat them up with the run game and our big offensive line, and then it opened that stuff up.”
After only rushing for 15 yards in the opening quarter, Desert Pines ran for 212 yards in the final three.
That was led by Isaiah Morris, who had 21 carries for 97 yards before leaving the game midway through the fourth quarter with a left ankle injury. The injury appeared to be minor and he isn’t expected to miss any more playing time.
But the star of the night was Nofoa, who cashed in on two rushing touchdowns — both from the 1-yard line — and made a spectacular catch for a 17-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“We weren’t getting any breaks in the first half, and we finally got one, and I think that lifted our spirits and we were able to move forward,” Rodriguez said.
Grayson scrambled around two defenders before throwing the ball off his back foot. A defender tipped the ball before Nofoa caught it as he picked himself off the ground following a slip.
“I tried to catch myself and I saw the ball tipped,” Nofoa said. “I pulled it in and turned around and reached for the end zone as I fell again. To be honest, I couldn’t believe I caught it.”
It was a sign that the Panthers’ fortunes had changed. Despite being penalized 11 times, Desert Pines scored 35 unanswered points to cruise to the victory.
“We call him Trusty Trevor because we can always depend on him,” Rodriguez said. “He can do everything for our team and he’s a great kid and an amazing leader.”
The Desert Pines defense was also dominant, holding the Desert Shields to only 50 yards in the second half and forcing five turnovers — including two interceptions by senior corner Artise McCoy.
But the hard-fought road victory hasn’t chiseled the chip off the Jaguars shoulder just yet.
“Us being the three seed, and being bumped down three spots in the coaches poll, the kids saw that and thought, 'We haven’t lost and we are being disrespected.' So that really fired our kids up,” Rodriguez said.
The Jaguars were three spots below an Arbor View team that they manhandled 50-14 on opening day in the coaches poll released this week.
Next up for Desert Pines is Moapa Valley, who defeated them in last season’s state championship game. The Pirates made easy work of Sierra Vista in their first round matchup 52-12.
But Rodriguez believes that this team is on a mission, and all of the adversity that they have faced over the last two years has only prepared them to this point.
“The last two years we’ve lost some close games to Faith, and the heartbreaker (in the state championship) to Moapa, but I think it has made us stronger as a team,” Rodriguez said. “We are a family.”