PEORIA — It was far from a work of art but the Centennial Coyotes’ special teams were just special enough to preserve a nailbiting 13-12 victory over the Millennium Tigers in a Freedom matchup on Friday night at Coyotes Field.
“Give Millennium a lot of credit — they played hard,” Centennial Head Coach Richard Taylor said after his team’s 2021 home opener. “We were fortunate to come out of here with the win. We made some big plays late in fourth quarter.”
It was a pair of huge special teams plays — a PAT block by Dylan Roberts early in the second half and a 2-point pass breakup by Christian Cabello with seven minutes left in the game — that provided the winning margin as Centennial struggled for much of the evening.
“Our special teams usually play very well and they made the difference in this game,” Taylor admitted. “You saw tonight why we work on them so much.”
In its first two games of the 2021 season, Centennial has used a two-quarterback system with junior Austin Glimpse — more of a traditional pocket passer — along with junior transfer Steven Urquiza, a dual threat more apt to run the football after moving in from Chavez High School.
Glimpse started Friday but struggled in the early going as the Coyotes’ first five drives of the game yielded no points.
Penalties, botched snaps and miscommunication plagued Centennial in the first quarter before the Coyotes got going midway through the second stanza.
Urquiza sparked the offense with his legs, popping off three big runs. Noah Carter hauled in a pass to take the ball inside the 10.
But on first and goal at the 1, Glimpse was stuffed and lost the football. Millennium (1-1) fell on the loose ball and celebrated wildly with a defensive stop at the goal line.
Meanwhile, the Centennial defense was making things difficult on the Millennium offense led by senior QB Blake Sparks. Sparks was intercepted early by the Coyotes’ Demari Washington. A trio of three-and-outs — including a sure TD dropped by a wide-open Gavin Trim — followed before the Tigers and Head Coach Lamar Early took a big gamble that came up “snake eyes.”
Facing 4th-and-1 at their own 33, Millennium running back Zues Pinder took a handoff up the middle but was immediately stonewalled by Centennial’s Javier Narvaez.
With prime field position, 6A Centennial (1-1) this time broke the scoreless deadlock against their 5A opponent. A 10-yard run by Kaden Armstrong set up Urquiza at the Tigers’ 21.
Known for his quick feet, Urquiza instead surprised the Tiger defense with a beautifully thrown 21-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Carter.
“Noah knows how to get open,” Urquiza said after the game. “I trusted him and put the ball where he could get to it.”
Taylor was not surprised with the result.
“Steven threw a big TD pass for us,” he said. “He does run well but Steven can pass the ball, too.”
The PAT was blocked and the Coyotes held a narrow 6-0 halftime lead. Taylor was not pleased with the plethora of first-half miscues.
“Those have to be cleaned up,” he said.
Trailing by just six, the Tigers came out of the locker room fired up and scored on their first possession of the second half.
Aided by a late-hit penalty, Millennium embarked on a 12-play, 71-yard drive that culminated with a 30-yard TD pass over the middle from Sparks to Trim. But Roberts squelched any Millennium plans to take the lead by crashing through and smothering the PAT attempt.
The game was tied 6-6 with 6:06 left in the third quarter.
The teams traded punts as the fourth quarter commenced. Millennium’s Giovanni Peru was kicking himself after having a pass from Glimpse bounce in and out of his hands. Instead of a potential interception, the drive continued.
Matai Carter hauled in a key screen pass for 10 yards. Centennial’s powerful running back duo — James Scott and Kavaughn Clark — finally got untracked to put the Coyotes back on top. Both ran behind an inspired offensive line before Scott did the honors from one yard out:
Brysen Gardner tacked on the PAT to give Centennial a 13-6 advantage with 9:37 left in the game.
Millennium had one final bullet left in the chamber and it nearly took them to victory.
Fueled by a big 34-yard run by Pinder, the Tigers quickly moved into the red zone. On 4th-and-4, Sparks calmly rolled out and found Pinder for a 7-yard touchdown to bring Millennium within 13-12 at the 6:47 mark:
Millennium TD to get within 1. May go for 2 and the lead. Timeout. pic.twitter.com/xBQBnH8qML— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) September 11, 2021
Having had their earlier PAT blocked, the Tigers gambled again and went for 2 points and the possible win. Centennial senior linebacker Christian Cabello was having none of it, diving to swat away Sparks’ pass to keep the one-point lead:
Needing to kill 6 1/2 minutes, the Centennial O-line paved the way for game clinching runs by Scott and Urquiza. Another Scott rushing TD was wiped out by a holding call but Millennium could no longer stop the clock. Glimpse took a knee and Centennial had escaped with the one-point win.
Urquiza, who sat out of football an entire year, was all smiles even after the grueling contest.
“I haven’t played in two years so I’m just happy to be on the field,” the quarterback said. “This coming week, we need to work to fix the mistakes. It’s nothing we can’t fix.”
Each team plays next at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 17 — Millennium will head home to face Boulder Creek (0-2) while Centennial travels to Mountain Ridge (1-1).
“I’m glad to get out with a win tonight,” Taylor said. “We will check the film tomorrow and start working on getting better.”