Hosting their third consecutive perennial playoff opponent, the prospects for victory weren't very promising for the Pusch Ridge Lions.
However, their loss to the Arizona Lutheran Coyotes, 56-18, was more promising than the final score indicated.
Still suffering from injuries at the wide receiver position, the Lions found a running game in the second half.
Sophomore Mitch Reilly gained all 188 of his rushing yards on 14 carries in the second half. He also scored two touchdowns.
"It's been hard (without the wide receivers)," Reilly said. "We have to play tougher."
In a lackluster first half, the Tigers tried in vain to get their passing attack going.
Jake Frithsen completed six of 13 passes for 52 yards in the half.
Poor tackling and run defense hurt the Lions too, as they fell behind, 35-0 at the half.
Reilly electrified the home crowd with a 47-yard run on the first play of the second half. A couple of plays after Reilly ran for a first down deep into Coyotes territory, he took the handoff and went 18 yards for the touchdown. The kick failed, and the Lions trailed, 35-6.
"We were getting our blocks," Reilly said. "Everyone was working hard in the second half."
After the touchdown, Pusch Ridge went for the onside kick, and the Lions Tyler Overstreet recovered it. On the second play, Frithsen connected with Adrian Ochoa-Gomez for 46 yards and a touchdown. After another failed conversion attempt, it was 35-12.
Frithsen finished with eight of 17 for 106 yards passing.
The Lions had fallen into an early hole, as the bigger Coyotes marched 92 yards on four plays, capped by a 35-yard scoring run by Bryan Dude to make it 7-0 on the opening drive. On the second possession, a 40-yard run by Alfred Erives led to another touchdown run by Dude and a 14-0 lead for the Coyotes.
Erives was the player of the game, as he gained 233 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 21 carries. He also caught a 15-yard touchdown pass.
Arizona Lutheran, led by a big line, powered their way to 458 yards rushing.
"They have an outstanding team," said Lions first-year coach Troy Cropp. "It's a big, well-coached team."
"We've played three perennial playoff teams in three weeks."
The Lions surge in the third made the Coyotes concerned enough to keep Erives in the game for most of the third quarter.
"We were trying to pass in the first half," Cropp said. "We went back to our running game."
After the Lions second touchdown of the third closed the gap, they tried another onside kick, but the Coyotes pounced on it.
With Erives still in the game, they went down the field and Erives capped the drive with a 44-yard touchdown run for a 42-12 lead. Erives also scored again on a four-yard touchdown run early in the fourth.
"We were encouraged by the Empire game," Reilly said. The Lions scored 28 points in the second-game loss.
"We're excited with the new coaching staff this year. These coaches work their butts off."
The Lions threatened in the second, getting the ball down to the 21-yard line of the Coyotes, before fumbling the ball away.
Late in the game, the Lions continued to show fight. Reilly broke a 26-yard run into Coyotes territory. Then, he took the next carry and went 42 yards to pay dirt.
"There was plenty to build on," Cropp said. "We're still learning and growing."
"We need to get healthy. Our offense is getting more productive."
The Lions will resume play on Friday night when they play at Tanque Verde at 7p.m.