CASA GRANDE — All week leading up to the game, Casa Grande knew it would be a big challenge to deal with the Glendale Cactus defense. It was all that and then some.

The No. 4 Cobras (8-2) smothered the explosive offense of No. 1 Casa Grande (7-2) from the very beginning, as Cactus cruised to a 35-13 win in the 4A semifinals Friday.

The Cougars were shut out for the first three quarters before they finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter on a short slant pass over the middle by quarterback Angel Flores, which receiver Demetrius Garrett took 73 yards for a touchdown.

That score cut the Cactus lead to 21-7. But the momentum was immediately erased on the ensuing kickoff, which was returned 91 yards to the end zone by Cactus receiver Chris Thomas Jr.

Flores was 15-of-22 passing for 231 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. But he and the Cougars could never get their running game on track, which has been the key to their success all season.

“I think what was difficult was nerves, really,” Flores said. “Just knowing the stage that we’ve been put on, I think a lot of people were inside their own heads. I think that’s a big reason.”

Flores said his team had enough talent to win, but not rising to the challenge mentally and making mistakes with penalties and turnovers proved too costly against a very tough Cactus team.

The Cobras scored their first two TDs in eerily similar fashion. With 3:34 remaining in the first quarter, they faced a fourth-and-1 when running back Aki Pulu ran 30 yards for a score. In the first minute of the second quarter, it happened again.

On fourth-and-1, Pulu ran 24 yards to the house to give Cactus a 14-0 lead. Fourth down plays were crucial.

In fact, the third touchdown of the first half had to be the hardest to swallow for Casa Grande.

On fourth-and-goal from the 7, Cactus quarterback Will Galvan ran a sweep around the left side and glided into the end zone untouched to give the Cobras a 21-0 lead at the half.

Pulu rushed 10 times for 115 yards and three TDs.

But it was the speed and power of the Cactus defense, especially on the defensive line, that proved to be the biggest difference.

“Honestly, I just have to give it up to their D-line,” Flores said. “Their D-line played physical, and we just couldn’t get anything rolling like usually how we do when we have our longer runs and to [set those up] for the passing plays.”

Casa Grande coach Jake Barro said Cactus didn’t do a ton of blitzing other than on third down; it just won the battle up front.

“They were so good up front, they were able to just put four (linemen) down and take away the run and control the line of scrimmage,” he said.

Cougars running back RJ Keeton, who ran wild over Lake Havasu and Peoria in the previous two games, was bottled up for 17 yards on seven carries. Coming into the game with 18 TDs on 73 carries, he was held out of the end zone.

The second and final touchdown of the night for Casa Grande came on a 17-yard pass from Flores to Jett Hale with less than six minutes remaining in the game. Hale finished with five catches for 80 yards.

Garrett hauled in three passes for 94 yards, including his 73-yard TD.

The Cobras sacked Flores five times and held him to just 14 yards rushing.

Sophomore Grant Johnson registered a sack for the Cougars, and linebacker Jake Sylvestre had a fumble recovery.

Barro said an emotional goodbye to his senior class, which includes standout linebacker Jake Thomas, who recovered a fumble against Cactus after recovering one the week before against Peoria. Barro said “it’s always the hardest part of the year” to have that final talk with his seniors. But he told them and all of the players on the team that he loved them.

The Cougars will return most of their junior-heavy team next season for another shot at a state title.

“It’s a motivating tool,” Barro said of the loss. “We’re on our way. Last year we got to the quarterfinals, and that was the furthest we’d been for 26 years. Now we got to the semifinals ... I think if anything, this will really motivate the younger kids to [say], ‘We want that one more step. We want to win this thing.’”

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Brian Wright is the sports editor at PinalCentral. He can be reached at bwright@pinalcentral.com.