UNIVERSITY PARK — Just outside of the Dallas backdrop sits Highlander Stadium, historically one of the hardest places for any high school not named Highland Park to win.
While West Mesquite learned first-hand about the Scots’ ability to protect their home turf during a 38-17 slightly one-sided shootout Friday night that helped decide first place in District 15-5A, there may be more to the narrative than victory.
Though there is a handful of championship contenders ready to step confidently into the postseason, by December fewer will be left among the many. Some are anchored by battle-tested defensive units while others are fueled by overpowering offenses, but it’s rare that a team finds completeness and has both assets at its disposal.
Highland Park, the defending Division I 5A state champion, may be one of those atypical anomalies. West Mesquite may be mere steps behind despite the loss.
The Scots, owners of a multifaceted and explosive offense, and the Wranglers, owners of a ball-hawking and intelligent defense, had worked their way into the conversation either by past success or present accomplishment.
HOW GOOD WAS THE SCOTS’ OFFENSE?
Highland Park is less than a year removed from clinching a title, the third in the program’s 94-year history. The Wranglers entered the matchup with a defense touted as one of the best in the UIL 5A class, as well as one that had limited its opponents to an average of 11 points per game.
With the help of 230 total first-half yards and three touchdowns, senior quarterback John Stephen Jones and the Scots bested that total by three points — in less than 24 minutes. In two quarters, Jones completed 10 of his 13 passes and threw for 147 yards and two touchdowns to six different receivers.
It was more than outpacing arguably one of the best defenses in the prep gridiron universe regardless of classification, rebounding from a first play, first drive sack by D.J. Jackson, and trying to fill gaps lost from last season’s state title team, though.
“Every team is different. Chemistry is different. Personnel is different. Last year we had a lot of experience on both sides of the ball — especially on defense,” Highland Park Head Coach Randy Allen said. “I think balance is the key for us. If they press you and play man coverage, you’ve got to come up with some answers and you can’t run it all the time. Most important is we have a belief that we’re going to win that transcends generations. No team wants to be the one to let the other ones down.”
Highland Park’s next “link in the chain” came in Jones’ ability to create in chaos as well as through weapons that may separate the Scots from a majority of others in consideration for a 2017 state championship. One such weapon is Paxton Alexander, who hauled in both scoring passes on the Scots last two drives of the first half — including the second to last where he caught consecutive passes of 29, 9, and 36 yards to give Highland Park a 14-0 lead with 8:12 in the second quarter.
It was the impact of 6-foot-5 Cade Saustad, who found the end zone once for 22 of his 53 yards receiving, and Carson Bryant and Scully Jenevin who tested the edges of West Mesquite’s defense and fearlessly challenged talented cornerbacks and safeties on down-the-middle-of-the-field fly routes.
“Two of them [passes to Saustad] were by design and the other one wasn’t,” Jones said. “I was looking down the middle of the field. When they blitz, he’s my hot route. When I saw it, I checked it down to him and he did what he does. Anytime we can get the ball in that’s kid’s hands, we have a pretty good chance of going for six. It’s incredible [to have that many receivers] when I’m not looking to one side of the field each play. When we call a play designed for one guy and the defense can’t lock down one guy because I have seven threats. It just makes my life a lot easier.”
The Scots’ gunslinger was near perfect in the matchup finishing 15-for-18 with 224 yards and three touchdowns, including completing all of his final 11 passes. Perhaps more astoundingly, he didn’t throw an incompletion after the first quarter.
DOES HIGHLAND PARK HAVE A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP DEFENSE?
While Jones and the offense might have been no-brainer newspaper headliners, it was the Scots’ defense that may have made a bigger impact and built more momentum going into the meat of the season.
Outside of an Angel Chavarria 35-yard field goal in the first half, Curtis Williams’ 33-yard slice through Highland Park’s frontline with little more than 10 minutes left in the third quarter and Ty-Coreous Jordan’s one-play, 75-yard sprint into the end zone seven minutes later, the Wranglers were limited to 17 points.
Despite production from Williams (20 rush, 104 yards, TD), Jordan (10 rush, 94 yards), and quarterback Connor Neill (8-18, 112 yards, 2 INT), West Mesquite posted a season-low 324 total yards. Only 78 of that total was gained in the first two quarters when the Scots built the bulk of their 21-point advantage.
The aspect of pressure — specifically during Colby Hopkins’ fourth-quarter sack and Noble Nash’s near pick-6 — may have helped the Scots effectively close the circuit on the legitimacy of a return to the state championship battleground. The senior outside linebacker’s takeaway wasn’t only a backbreaker, it was the last gasp of an offense that had become one-dimensional and been forced to rely on something other than its core strength.
Driving down the field and in position to cut the deficit to two touchdowns, Neill rolled right, threw across his body, and floated a pass into the waiting hands of Nash.
“It was right to me. I don’t have great hands but once I caught it and ran down the field. I haven’t run that far, that fast in a long time — since I played running back,” Nash said about the interception, one of two the Scots’ nabbed in the second half. “It was huge for us. They were on the 20 and I know we could have stopped them but the interception completely changed the mindset of the sideline. It really changed the game for us.”
The interception and Nash’s subsequent 80-yard return set the stage for Jones’ 1-yard rumble into the end zone — an effective nail in the coffin that put to rest a West Mesquite comeback bid. Hudson Clark’s interception of Neill late in the fourth quarter, too, proved Highland Park’s stoutness in the secondary as well as in the trenches.
WHAT CHALLENGES LOOM IN THE SCOTS’ REGULAR-SEASON SCHEDULE?
With struggling teams at Forney, Royce City, and Wylie East High Schools left in the Scots’ schedule, Mesquite Poteet may be the last team equipped to upset Highland Park.
The (3-3, 2-1) Pirates are currently in a three-way tie with North Forney and West Mesquite High Schools for second in the district standings. They have also scored 46.3 points per game in each of their three victories and 20.3 points per game during losses to state-ranked Denton Ryan and Mansfield Lake Ridge and district frontrunner North Forney.
“This team is finding itself in each game and getting a little better each one,” Allen said. “Hopefully if we can stay healthy and get better, we’ll be alright.”
Denton Ryan’s Raiders are currently ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press and Mansfield Lake Ridge’s Eagles are at No. 18.
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