Stuck in neutral for the first half against its blood rival, Cactus ignited in the final 15 minutes of the game to stun visiting Peoria.
All three phases contributed mightily to the rally. A three and out fed into a 53-yard screen pass to set up the first touchdown. A third-down stop begat a 98-yars touchdown drive. And a blocked punt set up the go-ahead score.
When the horn sounded, the Cobras had scored 20 points in less than a quarter of game time and shut the Panthers out in the second half. Cactus (8-2, 3-1 West Valley Region) won the 34th regular season matchup in this rivalry 20-14.
"Our coaches did a great job of adjusting to their offense," senior linebacker Nate (Doodles) Quinones said. "We got energy when we started scoring and we didn't stop."
Senior tailback Anthony Flores burst for 49 yards on the first snap of the game, only to see a hold bring it back — as would become a recurring theme for the Cobras. So Nicc Quinones took the next carry 50 yards.
A 21-yard scramble by senior quarterback Conner Cordts brought the home team to the 5. But Peoria's defense stiffened and forced Cordts into an errant throw on fourth and goal.
The Peoria (8-2, 2-2) defense did not allow a first down the rest of the half and only gave up seven yards of total offense.
"They changed up their defense completely and it took us a while to adjust. Once we blocked some schemes how we wanted and executed well — we had a lot of drops in the first half — we were able to be successful," Cactus coach Joseph Ortiz said.
On their second series the Panthers turned to their passing game — aka Jovon Scott. The 5-7, 140-pound dynamo got behind the defense, grabbed senior quarterback Kyle Samford's throw and dashed in to complete the 85-yard touchdown pass.
Scott finished the night with five receptions for 192 yards. Peoria's offense finished the night with six receptions for 197 yards.
"We made a couple mistakes, but the fact of the matter is #24 (Nate Quinones) played well and their whole defense did. Brian (Belles) does a great job with their defense."
Early in the second quarter, the teams traded interceptions. Junior Jesse Gandara struck first for Cactus, but two plays later Peoria junior Andrew Gaston replied and returned his pick to the Cobras' 35.
Sophomore tailback Cameron Mack got the Panthers into the red zone and soon the visitors faced their own fourth and goal.
Babb also went for it and junior Antonio Pratt snagged the tipped ball in the end zone and returned the pick to the Cobras' 38.
Those missing points loomed large later in the game, particularly after Peoria took a 14-0 halftime lead on the strength of a 33-yard connection from Samford to Scott. That set up Mack's 2-yard touchdown on a wingback counter.
"Theres a couple of situations where we miht have even kicked the football. But our regular kicker is not here," Babb said. "But our defense was playing well. We're trying to win at that point. And I didn't think 14 was going to win."
Plagued by drops in the first half, Cactus kept it on the ground early in the third. Their drive stalled but a 13-yard double reverse involving the Quinones brothers at least got the home team some belief.
On their next possession Nicc Quinones ran for seven and a first down. That set up Cordts' boundary screen to Pratt, which the junior took 53 yards down to the 2.
"It was huge. It got our student section going and our fans going. We had a great crowd tonight," Cordts said. "The defense really carried us tonight and put up a shutout in the second half.
Following an illegal shift penalty wiping out a Cactus touchdown, Flores took a toss straight through the middle of the line for a 4-yard scoring run.
A missed extra point kept the score at 14-6 but the fuse was lit.
"At the end of the day it's playmakers making plays," Ortiz said.
Scott made one more big 33-yard catch but from there the Cobras' defense was lights out. Peoria pinned the Cobras with a punt downed at the 2.
Starting with the second play of the fourth quarter Cordts took control. He first got a hand from Flores, who made a leaping one-handed catch on third down to keep the chains moving.
From there Cordts completed his next four passes for 13, 25, 14 and 21 yards. Pratt caught the two shorter passes while senior tight end Jacob Flaherty made the 21-yard pass to set up Cordts burrowing in from the 2.
"We had to have faith. We knew we were starting back in our own territory. Anthony bailed me out on that one catch. I was just trying to keep the play alive and he made a huge play. My offensive line was giving me time to deliver the ball," Cordts said. "After that two-point conversion didn't go our way, it was ok. I knew the way our defense is playing they were going to get a stop."
A two-point pass failed but momentum was firmly in the hands of the columbia blue and black.
Senior linebacker Nate (Doodles) Quinones forced a Samford fumble on the Panthers ensuing third down though it bounced to Mack.
So Doodles made sure, blocking a punt on the next play. Cactus recovered on the Peoria 47.
"I just went all out. We didn't get that fumble so I was angry and I took it out on the next play," Doodles Quinones said.
Two plays later Cordts cut loose, senior T.J. Rucker ran a post and caught a 44-yard touchdown to go in front. Flores ran in the two-pointer with 3:39 remaining.
"I'm so thankful that my man T.J. (a basketball player) came out for football. He made a great play," Cordts said. "Last year I barely got to play because I broke my wrist on the first drive. And I was not going to let them beat us on our field my senior year."
Peoria had two chances in the final three minutes but the Cobra defense did not allow a first down.
"(Belles) made some adjustments with how we were playing our linebackers and we were able to get some stops," Ortiz said. "iDoodles is unbelievable, how strong and powerful he is at that size. He's a great kid but he's even better off the field. I'm so proud of him."