RENO -- The Palo Verde Panthers quickly found out what the rest of the Northern 4A already knew--never fall behind early against McQueen.
It happened in the most unusual of ways, although it always seems to with the Lancers. Palo Verde botched two punts in the first quarter that were followed by Lancer touchdowns, then it had a punt blocked on the first play of the second quarter that was followed by another touchdown as it found itself down 21-0.
McQueen kept piling it on after that as it cruised to a 45-0 win over the Sunrise Region champion in the NIAA/U.S. Bank 4A State Championship semifinals on Saturday afternoon at John Robb Stadium.
"I thought we played in the first half, especially the first quarter, great special teams," said Lancer coach Ken Dalton, who will guide his fourth consecutive team into the state championship game next Saturday against Sunset Region champion Desert Pines at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. "The key was our special teams. They ran the ball. The didn't throw the ball a lot."
Desert Pines beat Cheyenne 26-6 in Saturday's other semifinal.
In fact, Palo Verde (9-4) only threw the ball three times in the game as the Panthers never deviated from the methodical, run-happy offense that had gotten them this far. The problem was, though, that Durango, Centennial and Cheyenne, the three teams they beat in the Sunrise Regional Tournament , didn't have defenses like McQueen's.
The Lancers only surrendered 15 yards on the ground in the first half and just over 70 for the game.
"We played great defense. Pretty tough to run the ball on the McQueen defense," said Dalton, whose team has outscored opponents 642-28 this season.
But even after Clint Stitser kicked a 26-yard field goal and Eddie Cortez scored on a 2-yard TD run in the third quarter and Palo Verde fell behind 31-0, it still didn't start throwing the ball.
The one time it did throw in the second half was when running Philip Faraglia attempted a pass on a trick play on third down. But that pass was intercepted by Chris Warner, which was eventually followed with Cortez' second TD run of the half to put the Lancers up 38-0 with 9:28 left in the game.
Cortez, who had his way all game with a Panther defense that was, on average, allowing only eight points a game and 137 yards of total offense, finished things off with a 45-yard TD run with 6:37 remaining. The Lancers gained 199 yards of offense in the second half alone, with Cortez rushing for 137 of those yards.
"We just wanted to come out and out-phyiscal them," said McQueen running back Matt Marner, who rushed for all three first-half touchdowns. "It kind of puts it into perspective how much talent we have. It wasn't one guy today, it was a lot of guys who played well. I could care less who we play (in the state championship). I just want to get down there."
McQueen will be playing in its ninth state title game since 1990 next Saturday at 7 p.m. against Desert Pines. But if the Lancers are to win their fifth state title, Mohu Otuafi won't be a factor on the field.
Otuafi was ejected from yesterday's game after officials claimed he threw a punch inside of a large pile in the second quarter. NIAA rules state that any player ejected from a game must serve a one-game suspension.
Otuafi was the Lancers' leading receiver with 30 catches for 532 yards and nine touchdowns this season. But Dalton said the loss of Otuafi, one of only two three-year starters on the roster, won't take any focus away from next week's game.
McQueen (13-0) lost to Las Vegas in overtime in last year's state title game.
"I'm sure there was no punch whatsoever," Dalton said of the incident. "We're awfully hungry after last year. We're going to prepare to win."