With 2:40 remaining in the third quarter, Cactus' football season was officially headed south.
The Cobras had just given up a 10-play, 94-yard drive to Phoenix Thunderbird, as star senior running back Kani Benoit scored from two yards out to put the Chiefs up 17-7.
However, Division III No. 7 Cactus (4-2) showed grit by scoring 23 second before the end of the third quarter. The home team missed a potential game-tying field goal but rebounded with a four-yard touchdown on a fly sweep by sophomore Alex Marshall with 3:56 left. The Cobras held on to beat No. 8 Thunderbird (3-3) 21-17.
"I thought our defense played with great passion tonight," Cactus coach Larry Fetkenhier said. "I thought the offense showed character. There were a number of times when things were going bad, and we weathered the storm. Our schedule is so tough. If we get into a hole at 3-3, I'm not sure we can get out."
Coming off a 67-14 shellacking by Scottsdale Saguaro and with tough games against Avondale Agua Fria, Sunrise Mountain and Liberty coming up, it's not a stretch to call the comeback a season saver.
Now, the Cobras have a chance to do what they did last year — follow a blowout by Saguaro, with a come-from-behind win over a tough Thunderbird team and ride the momentum.
In 2011 Cactus erased a 14-0 first-quarter deficit to beat the Chiefs 32-22. It was first of eight straight wins for the Cobras in a state runner-up season.
"We played to our ability. It was great to pull out that win," senior linebacker Zac Bradley said. "If we ride this, we can run the table."
The Chiefs came out Friday prepared to ride Benoit to its first victory over its rival in recent memory. The senior, considered one of Arizona's best backs, carried the ball on four of seven opening drive plays, rolling up 42 yards and a seven-yard touchdown straight up the gut.
Both teams traded punts, then Cactus let a golden opportunity slip. Sophomore David Neel recovered a bobbled pitch at the Chiefs' 36.
The offense lost four yards and punted, but the defense held firm setting up the home team near midfield.
Cactus capitalized, scoring on a nine-play drive. Sophomore tailback Jaylon James finished it by stretching the ball over the goal line on a five-yard scoring run.
Thunderbird quickly regained the lead, though Cactus went into halftime a bit relieved.
The Chiefs drove to the 3, but on third down the defense stuffed Benoit for a two-yard loss. Senior Eric Wagner's 22-yard field goal put the visitors up 10-7 heading into halftime.
"We got together and made sure that we were on the same page and started playing faster and hitting harder," Bradley said. "Our coaches set us up with a great game plan. Once we stopped Benoit, their offense wasn't going anywhere."
On the second drive of the third quarter the Cobras cranked up their fast break zone read attack with consecutive runs of 12, 12 and 13 yards. But this drive also bogged down near the goal line.
James got the carry on fourth down and five at the 8 and was tackled at the 6. This allowed Thunderbird to seize control.
Benoit rumbled 16 yards for a first down and 15 more was tacked on by a late hit. Pass interference and face mask calls in the red zone set up Benoit's two-yard touchdown run.
"Any time you play a back like that he can take it to the house," Fetkenhier said.
Down 17-7, the Cobras quickly got to work. Junior quarterback Talal Yousufzai converted a fourth-and-seven play from the Thunderbird 41, by hitting junior receiver Isaac Archuleta for 18 yards.
Two plays letter, with 24.9 seconds left in the quarter, Yousufzai connected with senior receiver Alex Armbrust on a post pattern for a 22-yard touchdown.
Again the defense stuffed Benoit on a third down carry. Senior Josh Kindred brought the Cobras close by returning the ensuing punt 55 yards.
Armbrust moved the pile and received a push from teammates for 18 yards on a reverse. But another Cobra drive stalled in the red zone.
Yousufzai kept the ball on a zone read play, scoring an apparent go-ahead six-yard touchdown. But a holding call wiped out the score and forced a 33-yard field goal attempt, which sophomore Isaiah Lopez pushed just wide.
The defense stood up once again, stopping the Chiefs in five plays. And sound blocking sprung Kindred a second time, as his 42-yards return gave Cactus the ball 25 yards from paydirt.
"My team was setting up real good blocks and I tried to read off them. They made it real easy to get up the sideline," Kindred said.
This time there was no near miss. Yousufzai's five-yard run picked up a first down. James followed with 10 yards and another first down and Marshall scored on the next play.
"I do think maybe we wore them down a bit," Fetkenhier said. "Our tempo was decent. And I thought our two puppy running backs (Marshall and James) showed some maturity tonight."
Thunderbird had another shot, starting at the Cactus 47 after a squib kick. But now the Chiefs had their big play wiped out, as junior Jake Glatting's 24-yard pass to senior Justin Taylor was called back by an illegal man downfield penalty.
Cactus bled all but six seconds off the clock and broke up Thunderbird's desperation heave to seal the win.
Benoit was the game's standout, rushing 30 times for 178 yards, but the Cactus defense did not allow him to break a run of more than 24 yards.
His production was matched by the troika of Yousufzai (16 carries, 88 yards) Marshall (13 carries, 57 yards) and James (10 carries, 42 yards).
Cactus entered the game at No. 15 in the Division III power rankings and should move up after beating No. 10 Thunderbird. But how, where and why is anybody's guess.
"None of the coaches know how the (new power point) formula works. We don't know what's good for us and what's bad for us," Fetkenhier said. "I think the superintendents of the state of Arizona should be embarrassed, that they've allowed the AIA to have a curtain around something as important as this. They won't share it with us, and the coaches and the athletic directors don't understand it. It's a travesty."