ARLINGTON — As the clock struck midnight at AT&T Stadium, Highland Park officially punched its ticket back to the Class 5A Division I state championship game.
A dynamic offense and an opportunistic defense combined to lift the Scots past previously unbeaten Denton Ryan 45-35 on Friday in the state semifinals, erasing the Raiders’ hopes for revenge while getting HP one step closer in its quest to repeat.
The Scots (14-1) will face Manvel (14-0) at 7 p.m. Dec. 22 in the state championship game on the same field where they have won more games than any other high school team.
John Stephen Jones threw five touchdown passes — including three to Cade Saustad in the first half — and finished with 377 passing yards. Conner Allen added two touchdowns on his birthday for the Scots.
“He had a great game,” HP head coach Randy Allen said of Jones. “He was magic. He was finding open receivers and managing the game, and running when he had to.”
Meanwhile, big plays on defense and special teams were the catalyst for HP’s run of 24 straight points in the second and third quarters that turned a seven-point deficit into a 17-point advantage.
Saustad’s third touchdown catch was a 12-yarder midway through the second quarter that tied the seesaw game at 21.
The Scots made their first defensive stop by forcing a punt, and the offense capitalized quickly with a 71-yard drive capped by a 9-yard scoring toss from Jones to Carson Bryant, giving HP its first lead, which it never relinquished.
Although Ryan Coxe’s interception in the final minute of the first half didn’t result in any points, it gave the Scots momentum that continued into the third quarter.
On the second play after halftime, HP’s Elliott Newsom recovered a fumble at the Ryan 19-yard line, leading to a 37-yard field goal by Matteo Cordray.
After the Raiders (14-1) went three-and-out, Jones led the Scots down the field again, finding Conner Allen for a 15-yard touchdown that stretched the advantage to 38-21 late in the third quarter. That possession included a 3-yard run by Coxe on a fourth-down fake punt at midfield.
Ryan responded with a couple of big plays to stay within striking distance, including a 60-yard touchdown pass from Spencer Sanders to Jamarion Robertson and an 80-yard run by Sanders.
However, HP responded with perhaps its two most impressive drives of the game down the stretch. The first covered 81 yards in 12 plays, capped by a 5-yard scoring run by Conner Allen.
The final HP possession might have been its best, despite not resulting in points. The Scots preserved their 10-point lead by draining the final eight minutes off the clock, using 17 plays in a possession that began at their own 5-yard line.
“They found a way to get a turnover and some stops,” Randy Allen said of the HP defense. “They seem to get used to the tempo as the game progresses. I’m so proud of our defense, because that was a great offense. They put us in position to score some points and run the clock out.”
In the first half, the Raiders gained the upper hand as the teams traded touchdowns. Ryan’s opening drive resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run by Sanders, and its second possession ended with a 34-yard scoring pass from Sanders to Gabriel Douglas.
Meanwhile, the Scots quickly found their rhythm after an opening punt. The next two drives each finished with Saustad reaching the end zone on receptions of 12 and 2 yards. The latter of those touchdowns came following a failed onside kick by Ryan.
“Cade was clutch. He made some huge plays,” Randy Allen said. “He’s hard to cover one-on-one, so they had to double him, which leaves someone else open.”
HP took advantage of consistently favorable field position to accumulate 531 total yards, including several key third-down conversions, despite a size and quickness disadvantage compared to the Ryan defense.
A primary reason is the playmaking ability of Jones, who was both elusive and resilient in one of the best performances of his career. Saustad finished with 104 receiving yards on eight catches, while Paxton Alexander rushed for a 91 yards on 21 carries despite nursing a sore ankle.
The stakes were especially high for the Raiders — coached by former HP assistant Dave Henigan — who sought revenge after falling to HP 31-24 in the same round last season, when they also entered with an undefeated record. Sanders injured his knee in the second quarter of that game, and the Scots subsequently rallied to win.
Sanders, who has verbally committed to Oklahoma State, was impressive in his final high school game on Friday, rushing for a game-high 160 yards on 16 attempts with two touchdowns. He also passed for 256 yards, with Chritauskie Dove catching seven passes for 107 yards and a score.