ARLINGTON — With 7:05 left in the game and nursing a 10-point lead, Highland Park had the Ryan defense right where it wanted it — third-and-long.
It was the eleventh third-down try the Scots attempted on the night, and when wide receiver Caleb Saustad fell to the turf, his knee barely reached the first-down marker. It was the epitome of Ryan's third-down defensive woes.
Ryan defensive coordinator Shane Tolleson did his homework on Highland Park. He knew after watching film on the Scots that if the Raiders could put them in third-and-long, then they'd have a chance. Unfortunately, no matter the distance, third-and-long was exactly where Highland Park wanted the Ryan defense.
The Scots were faced with third down 14 times and converted on 10 of them. Of those 10 conversions, the average distance was 7 yards. Most teams would love to put the opponent in third-and-7 10 times, but not against the Scots.
Highland Park converted three more third downs before kneeling its way to a 45-35 victory against Ryan in a Class 5A Division I state semifinal on Friday at AT&T Stadium.
"We said all week that we needed to get them in third down," Tolleson said. "If we could get them in third-and-long, then we'd have a chance. I thought we did that, but hats off to [Highland Park quarterback John Stephen Jones] for making us miss and finding guys open down the field.
"They are the best in the state of Texas at the scramble drill, and I'm pretty sure they work it every day because they turned a long third down into a back-breaking first down."
Just when Jones looked to be bottled up in the backfield, he'd slip away from a Ryan defender and find a wide-open receiver downfield to extend the drive.
The Scots punted on their opening possession. After that, they sent their punt team out only once more for the rest of the game — to run a fake punt they converted on.
"We can't win if we make any team punt one time," Tolleson said. "I came in with a goal to make them punt four times, twice per half. We had a lot of situations, but at the end of the day, we didn't make the plays we needed to."
Ryan's storied defense lost nine seniors a year ago. Tolleson said nobody in the state gave the 2017 defense a chance.
This year's defense held teams to an average of 20 points per game, three points more than last season's squad.
"Losing nine guys on defense last year, nobody gave this upcoming defense a shot," Tolleson said. "We weren't even picked to make it this far. Those seniors stepped up and took it as a challenge with a chip on their shoulders. My hat goes off to our entire defensive unit because they never quit on us."
JIMMY ISBELL can be reached at 817-781-0379 and via Twitter at @Jimmy_Isbell12.