LAREDO, Texas — Often after a team has secured a spot in the post-season, conventional wisdom dictates that “star” players are rested so that they’re fresh when it matters most and to also avoid possible injury. Considering that last Friday night the Alexander Bulldogs sealed their playoff berth with a 29-21 victory over the United South Panthers, one would be inclined to think that Head Coach Joel Lopez would take this path.
You’d be wrong.
When asked about this, Lopez said, “At Alexander, we now have a motto that says: ‘So what?’ [The United South] game is over with. We’re going to go out there and win this week [against the United Longhorns].”
Considering that the Bulldogs have lost to the Longhorns last season, it could be assumed that pride is a driving force in this situation.
United’s head coach David Sanchez has no doubt that the Bulldogs will be seeking to vanquish the Longhorns, surely ending their attempt to qualify for the playoffs.
“It’s a big rivalry game for us as coaches, them as students and for school pride so I guarantee you that they’re going to come out in full force and try to win the game.” He added, “Maybe if we get up on them early, [Lopez] might pull some of his players out to make sure they don’t get injured for the playoffs but I know they’re coming for us.”
The Bulldogs rushing attack is riding high with sophomore ball carrier Camilo Pedraza running behind a big and athletic offensive line to the tune of 127.2 yards per game and a total of 12 touchdowns. Pedraza – he has accounted for five scores in the past two games — regularly runs out of the Wildcat formation, particularly in short-yardage situations, which causes problems for the opposition.
“Their offense is playing with a bit of confidence coming into this weekend’s game because they’re coming off a couple of good wins. We’re expecting a tough game,” Sanchez said.
The Longhorns lost their top rusher in Isaac Velasquez when the senior ball carried suffered a torn ACL during the club’s win over the Del Rio Rams, last Thursday. Velasquez was averaging 117.9 yards and better than a score per outing when he went down for the season. Sanchez plans to utilize two players at running back position to “step in” for the injured Velasquez.
Although this would appear to be an advantage for Alexander, Lopez believes that “good coaches” are able to adjust and he expect that Sanchez will be ready to counter any defensive shifts from the Bulldogs.
He explained, “Depending on what our defense does, Coach Sanchez will use [United’s] spread offense and will respond. We then need to see what they are doing and shut them down.”
Sophomore quarterback Wayo Huerta has come into his own as United’s season has progressed. The young starter has thrown for 8 touchdowns to only one interception in the past three contests and averaged 249 passing yards per game over that same span. The Longhorns host a trio of experienced wideouts in Chris Fine (605 yards), Jacob Morales (365 yards) and Jorge Murillo (334 yards) that are precision route runners with deep threat ability. The three have combined to catch 12-touchdown passes and average 163-yards-per-game. Sanchez is pleased with the upgraded passing assault.
He said, “This time last year, we were running the ball a lot more and not passing as efficiently. Our ability to run and pass effectively this season has given us more balance [and] we’ve been throwing it 30 times, running 35 times a game and vice versa.”
The Bulldogs rely on a rotating quarterback system between junior Matthew Conner and sophomore Jose Rodriguez to run the offense. The pair has combined for an average of 205. 8 yards a game with a total of 13 scoring tosses but they have turned the ball over eight times through the course of the season. Alexander is not without receiving weapons.
Junior wideout Albert Laurel, Jr. (648 yards) is a speedster that can break any catch for long yardage and Leo Garcia (479 yards) – a senior — is a big, physical target that finds ways to consistently get open. When going airborne, Lopez knows that his shot caller needs to be vigilant.
He explained, “[United’s] defensive backs have shown a lot of speed throughout the year so we’ve got to be careful and make sure we’re not leaving the ball in the air too long. We’ve got to avoid turning it over.”
The Longhorns defense has been the team’s foundation all season long. The unit is fast, physical and well-rounded. Their strongest point is the ability to congest inside running lanes making it difficult for opposing ball carries. This is a fact that is not lost on Lopez.
“Their linebackers are downhill runners and everybody knows that [Alexander] is a gap scheme offense so our linemen have got to kept their heads up when pulling around the corner because those linebackers are going to go hard to the gaps.”
Lopez added that the Longhorns’ defensive linemen are good “technicians” so his offensive line has to play at a high-level and show sound “technique” too.
Lopez feels that his defense has improved over the season and is starting to peak. In the past couple of games, the squat has been reacting better and appear to be more relaxed with the game plan.
“Our kids are running harder to the ball because I think they’re a lot more comfortable and confident with the reads the coaches are giving them.” He added, “I think we match up well with United’s offense.”
With pride, bragging rights, post-season implications and reputations on the line, all the factors that make for a great rivalry game will play out under the Friday night lights. This is the kind of drama and excitement that locals have come to expect when these two teams meet. This is high school football at its best.
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