CASA GRANDE — When Jake Barro addressed his team immediately after a historic win over Peoria last Friday, he made sure they understood the significance of the challenge that awaited them in the next round against Glendale Cactus.
The Casa Grande coach said it was “no disrespect to other teams,” but he felt Casa Grande and Cactus were the two best 4A football teams in the state. Barro said the 4A semifinal game, which the Cougars will host Friday night, is the state title game, for all intents and purposes.
It’s the first state semifinal game in school history for Casa Grande.
Cactus (7-2) is the No. 4 seed, but after watching film, Barro and Casa Grande athletic director Randy Robbins are convinced the Cobras are the best 4A team outside of their own.
“I don’t want to disparage anybody else, but I think Cactus is the best team in the 4A bracket right now, other than us,” Barro said. “I think this next one is a big, big game. And it’s probably the game.”
Cactus is coming off a 41-7 dismantling of previously undefeated No. 5 Flagstaff Coconino (8-1). No. 1 Casa Grande (7-1) had a tough battle with No. 8 Peoria (4-4), but the Cougars pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 47-30 win.
The matchup to watch in this one is the Casa Grande offense versus the Cactus defense. It’s a strength-on-strength battle. The unit that wins that battle will likely decide the game.
The Cougars offense, led by quarterback Angel Flores and dominant running back RJ Keeton, averages 46.1 points and 472 yards per game. In their last two games, the Cougars had 603 yards against Lake Havasu and 579 yards against Peoria.
Meanwhile, Cactus held a Coconino offense that was averaging 36.2 points to just 7 points and 149 total yards. Coconino running back Zach Bennett came into that game averaging 145.9 rushing yards but was held to just 39 yards on 21 carries.
The Cobras are led on defense by linebackers Aki Pulu and Ata Teutupe and defensive end Justin Holmes, all juniors. Pulu had 12 tackles and two interceptions against Coconino. He also rushed for 70 yards and two TDs.
Teutupe has 92 tackles, including nine for a loss, and Holmes has 15 tackles for a loss and five sacks.
“They’re a pretty tough, swarming defense,” Barro said. “We’ve got a good offense, we’ve been doing a good job, so as long as we can kind of maintain possession and limit mistakes — not turn the ball over, not get backed up behind the sticks with penalties ... we should be OK. But it’s a challenge when you play such a tough, attacking defense like Cactus has.”
The Casa Grande offense is led by a physical offensive line and a spread running game that can beat teams with speed and power. Flores averages 111.8 rushing yards per game and has 16 TDs on the ground to go along with his 1,294 passing yards and 12 passing TDs.
Keeton is turning heads with his game-breaking ability. Nagged by an ankle injury at times earlier in the season, the junior is destroying teams on a weekly basis. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound back had 235 yards and three scores against Peoria last week after scoring six TDs against Lake Havasu in the play-in round.
Keeton averages 11.5 yards per rush and has 18 TDs on just 73 carries.
A deep receiving corps of Demetrius Garrett, Jett Hale, Deandrey Kelley and Anthony Flores also give the Cougars plenty of options in the passing game.
The Cobras have a running back-by-committee approach (176.9 yards per game as a team), and they also use two sophomore quarterbacks. Will Galvan and Chase Jasinski have combined to throw 17 touchdowns but also 12 interceptions.