“I’m going to have a heart attack.”
Those were Pahrump Valley High School football coach Joe Clayton’s first words to a reporter after the Trojans’ dramatic 36-33 victory over Valley on Friday night. But unlike the other close games his squad has had this season, this one worked out in the end.
And with a score like that, there is a lot of ground to cover. Since ending on a positive note is always better, the troublesome points will be addressed first.
Get them off the field
Third-down conversions are always an interesting statistic in a football game, but what about fourth-down conversions? Four times on Friday night the Vikings went for it on fourth down: fourth-and-16 from the Trojans’ 39, fourth-and-2 on the Trojans’ 8, fourth-and-1 on the Vikings’ 29 and fourth-and-4 on the Vikings’ 46. (They also went for it on fourth-and-10 as time expired, but we’re not including desperation passes. Although the one that ended the first half … well, we’ll get to that.)
The Vikings converted on all four plays. Most troubling was the first one, when Valley quarterback Jarrett Zibert — who threw for 248 yards and four touchdowns — hit Isaiah Ramirez for 23 yards to the Pahrump Valley 16. Ramirez had to come back to the ball but had no problem doing so. Four plays later, Zibert went 3 yards on a keeper on fourth-and-2 and set up a 6-yards scoring strike to Ramirez that gave the hosts a 7-6 lead.
“Like I said to the boys at halftime, when our defense is on the field a lot and our offense isn’t moving like we’re used to, it kind of changes the flow that we’re used to,” Clayton said.
Going 6-for-12 on third down isn’t bad, but it looks even better when you make all four of your fourth-down plays. Getting the opposing offense off the field will be critical during the playoffs.
“And obviously our defenders are getting tired because they’re not getting off the field,” Clayton said. “As soon as we flipped the script in the second half and our offense started rolling and keeping our defense off the field, that kind of changed the momentum a little bit.”
Pass coverage woes
One of the biggest issues during this season has been the Trojans’ pass defense. Almost every team threw more often than its season average against Pahrump Valley to take advantage of the situation. The Del Sol game was a pleasant exception, but the Dragons’ offense is largely based on throwing underneath and letting their receivers’ speed make the big gains rather than throwing the ball deep. And the Trojans played them perfectly.
But the Vikings were another animal. They sent receivers downfield and had significant success. Zibert’s 248 yards came on just 14 completions and he netted nearly 10 yards per attempt. A whopping seven pass plays went for at least 20 yards, including two on a potentially demoralizing final drive of the first half.
On third-and-10 from their own 45 with just 18 seconds left in the second quarter, Zibert found Ramirez open over the middle for 25 yards. Out of timeouts, the Vikings quickly spiked the ball to give Zibert one crack at the end zone from 30 yards out.
And he made it count, hitting Isaiah Williams in the end zone over two defenders to give Valley a 20-14 halftime lead.
It was only the second time this season the Trojans trailed going into halftime. Back on Aug. 24, Virgin Valley led Pahrump Valley 20-6 at halftime in a game the Bulldogs would win 26-24.
Still a second-half team
The Trojans have had the better of play in the second half throughout the season, outscoring opponents 160-86. That has been far more pronounced in Sunset League games, with Pahrump Valley holding a 98-26 edge. So it should come as no surprise that they were unfazed by the halftime deficit.
“We try to keep our morale up,” center Jakob Landis said. “It’s a game about trusting each other.”
“We came out there in the second half and made some corrections that needed to be made and played a lot better football,” quarterback Dylan Wright added.
Clayton admitted that he didn’t have a reason for the slow start to the game. It’s not that the Trojans were bad, but they seemed to lack a certain spark in the early going.
“I don’t know if it was us knowing that this game didn’t have any value for the seeding at all,” he said. “We had a good week of practice. They prepared, but we were flat.”
After halftime — and a darn good show by the Valley High School band — whatever was missing came back for the Pahrump Valley offense, but not before Valley put together a terrific drive to open the third quarter. The Vikings went 80 yards on 13 plays to take a 27-14 lead.
If trailing at halftime was one thing the Trojans were not accustomed to, trailing by 13 with 4:14 left in third quarter was a different situation altogether. But, in one of the best things to come out of this game for the Trojans, they did not panic. They did what they usually do, and did it very well.
Much of that meant handing the ball to Nico Velazquez. The Trojans’ workhorse finished with 140 yards after having 53 at intermission, scoring on runs of 7, 9 and 4 yards in the second half, the last coming with 36 seconds left on the clock.
“He’s our guy, that’s all there is to it,” Clayton said. “He was one of the ones that started slow, too.”
“They were tough, a pretty tough team,” said Velazquez, who now has 1,140 yards on 160 carries with 14 touchdowns. According to MaxPreps.com, Velazquez ranks 11th in the state in rushing (Bishop Manogue’s Peyton Dixon leads with 1,772), fourth in Class 3A (Boulder City’s Thorsten Balmer leads with 1,357), third in Class 3A Southern (Balmer again) and first in the Sunset League.
Offensive coordinator Craig Rieger said the slow start was not the fault of the offensive line, but an issue with the running backs, who seemed to be getting 4 yards when they should have had 6, for example. Clayton agreed.
“Our front got a good push all night long,” he said. “It was more of our running backs starting a little flat.”
But, as usual, flat was not a problem after halftime, even though Valley put by far the most pressure on them during the second half of any league opponent. The Vikings took their final lead at 33-28 with just 5:22 left on Zibert’s fourth touchdown pass.
Ending Valley’s playoff hopes
After Velazquez scored, the Vikings got the ball back down by three with only 30 seconds left. Zibert went back to throw four times, looking for a miracle. The first was tipped away by Dylan Grossell, the second was overthrown deep downfield, the third was knocked away by Joey Koenig, and the last desperation heave settled harmlessly into the arms of Willie Lucas at the Trojans’ 34-yard line.
“That was great,” Lucas said. “I loved it.”
He loved it so much that, despite the fact merely knocking down the ball would have ended the game, Lucas started to return the interception. That perhaps wasn’t the smartest idea for someone who joined the football team after the season started despite concerns that a possible injury would derail his potential collegiate baseball career.
“I was just in the moment, and I was like, well, scoring would be a good thing for me,” Lucas explained.
He was finally brought down near midfield, with the victory and an undefeated Sunset League campaign firmly in the Trojans’ grasp.
One of the more amusing items of this football season was a line in another news source that cited the Trojans’ “triple-option offense.” That would come as a surprise to Clayton, Rieger and a couple dozen young guys with numbers on their backs. About the only time this team has run the option this season has been on conversion plays, when they did some experimenting in the rout of Western, often successfully.
Now there were no options plays on conversions against Valley, but getting into the end zone after a touchdown proved vital for the Trojans. Each team scored five touchdowns in the game, but the difference was in the conversions.
J.C. Bingham was successful on three of the Vikings’ five extra points, while the Trojans converted on three of five 2-point tries. There’s your three points in the 36-33 final score.
The Trojans were stopped cold trying to fun for two twice, with Casey Flennory being stopped after the first score and Velazquez getting stuffed after the score that made it 27-20. But Flennory was successful on his other run, giving the Trojans a 28-27 lead, and Velazquez converted his other two to provide the difference in the game.
Yes, turnovers really will kill you
It’s been said more often than “Josh Allen’s pass intended for,” but it’s true. Turnovers really will kill you. And on this Friday night, they killed the Vikings’ playoff chances.
After the Vikings stopped the Trojans on fourth down from inside their own 10, they picked up a couple of first downs and had third-and-2 at their 39. But on a play that appeared to have the first down, the ball came loose and Velazquez scooped it up and brought it down to the Valley 25. Two runs apiece by Flennory and Velazquez and the Trojans had an early 6-0 lead.
A very similar situation occurred during the second quarter, as the Trojans again were stopped inside the Vikings’ 10 — Wright was stopped on a keeper on fourth-and-goal from the 1 — and Valley drove toward midfield. But Koenig picked off Zibert inside the Trojans’ 40 and returned it to the Valley 41. But this time the Trojans did not convert, as Flennory was stripped of the ball on what appeared to be a first-down run, and Williams took the pilfered prize 72 yards for a 14-6 Viking lead.
“We’re used to our offense definitely not getting stuffed inside the 5 twice,” Clayton said. “That doesn’t usually happen to us. I think mentally that affected us a little bit.”
The Williams fumble return might have been the key play in a game in which both teams were finding the end zone with regularlity, but Pahrump Valley got that extra possession back late in the third quarter. The Trojans had just scored to pull within 27-20. The Vikings, who had not been stopped on any drive except for the two turnovers, made it three as Grossell pounced on a loose ball on the first play after the kickoff. Two Velazquez runs later, plus Flennory’s conversion run, and just like that the Trojans were up by a point going into the fourth quarter.
There was still drama to come, but the Vikings had lost their chance to regain a two-score lead and, possibly, put away the game and lock up a playoff spot. Since Del Sol lost their game that night, 36-30 to Cheyenne, a Valley win would have locked up the final playoff spot in the Sunset. With the loss, Del Sol, Valley and Democracy Prep each finished 2-3 in the league, and the Dragons won on the tiebreaker to reach the regional playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs …
Clayton said before Friday night’s games that the way things looked, there was a good chance Boulder City would be coming to Pahrump for the second round of the playoffs Nov. 2. As it turned out, that very well could be the case.
The Eagles, who defeated the Trojans 32-28 on Sept. 7, routed Sunrise Mountain 48-12 in a result that decided second place in the Sunrise behind Moapa Valley. The second-seeded Eagles will host Del Sol on Thursday night in one Class 3A South playoff game, while the third-seeded Miners will travel to Cheyenne in the other. The Del Sol-Boulder City winner will indeed travel to Pahrump Valley the following week, while the Sunrise Mountain-Cheyenne winner gets a trip to Overton to play the Pirates.
“I’d like to go up against Boulder City again,” Landis said. “And Churchill County is still the big school up north. I’m looking forward to seeing them at state if we can make it.”
Landis might get that chance. Obviously it depends on who wins, but if seeds hold up Churchill County will face the No. 2 team from the South in the state semifinals. With Moapa Valley sitting at 9-1, a Nov. 2 victory likely would make them the No. 1 team in the South, putting Pahrump Valley up against Churchill County, which is 9-0 entering the Northern League playoffs.
“Moapa,” countered Lucas. “I heard they’re the toughest, so why not?”
Since the northern and southern teams cross over during the semifinal round rather than playing for northern and southern championships, the only way that matchup could happen would be in the Class 3A state final, which, of course, would be just fine with anyone wearing maroon and gold.
For Clayton’s sake, let’s hope any of the games don’t come down to the final 36 seconds.
“I’m getting to the point where I don’t have much more hair to lose,” he joked.
Contact Sports Editor Tom Rysinski at firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter:@PVTimesSports