September 1, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for game gallery
BROWNSVILLE – Next time you see Econ-Lopez on the football schedule, you might want to go check it out no matter where it’s at, because for the past two seasons that Upper v. Lower Valley matchup has provided more than its portion of craziness and entertainment. Following last year, when the Jaguars led by 14 until the Lobos rallied to tie it, Econ knocking in a last-chance field goal for a 38-35 decision at home, Friday’s clash at Veterans High School was another for the books.
Same scenario: Orange playing lights out at times to carve out a lead – after having been behind early – only to see the W slip away in the closing stretches, a wild 30-29 defeat that leaves Coach Raul Salas’ young but energetic team at 0-2 heading into a tilt with Corpus Christi Carroll next week. Lopez (1-1) connected on a 41-yard aerial gainer in the waning minutes, got in with 1:20 left, and punched in the two-point conversion, holding on for a 1-point margin, sending the Jags back home with plenty of positives but the Ziggy after two tries nonetheless.
The game was remarkable for many elements, including the fact that the teams combated the deal at Vets, not at the usual Brownsville venue, Sams Stadium. It was also noteworthy for its lack of turnovers, as each side was flawless in that category. The yardage was about equal.
Striking as well was the start, when Lopez scored off a 54-yard run on its first snap and was ahead 14-0 halfway through the opening period. Salas’ hustling Jags came back to lead though, 15-14 by the break, holding that advantage until a little more than a minute to go in the fourth. Both foes spent much of the night working on two-point conversions instead of kicking for one after touchdowns, the Lobos making more of the go-for-two moments than Econ, which was stopped short on a crucial two-point run attempt late in the game, leaving the score at 29-22 and setting the stage for the home side’s last-ditch drive and winning score. The Jags also committed key penalties allowing Lopez to re-try two extra points.
Still, Salas and his group should take this narrow defeat as a sign of better things to come, as the Jags were tricky from the start, with a reverse, double-reverse pass, and a couple of other wrinkles that helped them to a lead that almost held up. After the night he told his weary warriors to keep working and to make sure to be there the next morning for film and weights. He was undaunted when speaking of the breathtaking, if heart-wrenching, affair.
“We saw a lot of positives out there tonight,” he said. “We’ve got a good little group here, we really do, and we want them to stay with it, we’re going to stick with them when they make mistakes, and we want them to stick with us. The buy-in is there, we just have to get better at making plays. Making plays when it counts, that’s how you win football games, and we were just about there tonight.”
After last week’s 14-point loss at Donna North – which won again Friday by the way, 35-12 over Juarez-Lincoln – the Jags went south and contested the prize at a high school with a compact but clean field, surrounded by wilderness on the picturesque outskirts of Brownsville. Prime dove-hunt land, flipping, dipping palomas frequently flitting free over the festivities. But the scene was anything but artistic early on, as Econ came up empty on an inside kick to start it, with Lopez running back Eddie Slovak, a long and lean glider, motoring all the way for a TD on the first snap from center. Disaster continued as the visitor muffed the ensuing kickoff inside the 5, leading to a Jag punt shortly thereafter, to midfield. Lopez, on its way to more than 350 total yards (Econ got 318, all on the ground), was back in paydirt quickly, taking a 14-0 advantage at 5:09 of the first on a fourth-and-13 pass that was on the money from the 24.
Rather than fade away after this distressing opening act, Salas’ kids were determined to get back in it, and this is what they did. Despite the loss to injury of OL leader Jon Solis, the Orange crashed to a solid drive now, starting from the 30. With bruising former LB Chris Perez banging out gains and sophomore quarterback Johan Nunez running well, the Jags cruised into position. At 10:03, Nunez slipped in from the 5 and on the extra point, Josiah Villarreal took the direct pass back from center with almost all his teammates split wide in the old Swinging Gate formation. Villarreal quickly pitched to teammate Edgar Gaytan, circling on the left, and watched as Gaytan steamed in for the 2, making it 14-8, Lobos.
The Jags executed some deft plays Friday. Now with some momentum, they received an excellent break, as Lopez completed a 69-yard TD, only to see it nullified by a flag; it was a penalty-filled bout, to be sure, and on the touchdown, Econ betrayed a weakness that would plague the effort all night: shoddy tackling on the perimeter. But a break is a break, and when burly defensive lineman Anthony Gonzalez broke in for a sack of the passer, Lopez punted away.
After having been penalized on the runback, the Jags commenced the drill at their own 41. As Lopez had done earlier, Econ now reached the Promised Land on its initial snap of a drive, as Gaytan (105 yards rushing) churned down the right sideline, outdistancing a pair of huffing, puffing Lobos for a marvelous 59-yard scoring excursion at 6:59 of the second period. Kicker Ponciano Vazquez – one of the heroes of last year’s victory over the same Brownsville squad – gave his side a 15-14 lead.
That’s how the half ended, though Lopez threw it around with abandon to march downfield, a holding penalty botching the final series. On its last play, Lopez, trying for another fourth-down conversion, was foiled by cornerback David Gonzalez, a sophomore who roared into the corner of the end zone in pursuit of an open enemy receiver. At 0:48, Gonzalez made the play, breaking up the pass just as it seemed ready to find the mark and give Lopez back the lead.
WHO WILL TAKE COMMAND?
The Jags came out of the lockers with a mission, employing its considerable backfield depth to push the ball from their 25 into enemy territory. Freshman WR John Carreon (on the reverse) and junior Daniel Delgadillo turned in sharp carries behind a surging O-line, and Salas’ bunch was percolating. Gaytan rambled for 11 to get a first down at the Lopez 7, the Jags having overcome a hold and a motion call to advance forward. Nunez popped into the end zone at 7:11, a straight-ahead plunge on the QB sneak to pad the lead to 23-14, after another successful two-point try. The Jags had now put 23 straight onto the board at Vets, their Mr. Mojo rising, the Lobos blinking tentatively into the bright glare of sudden reality.
But Lopez broke off a 25-yard run and a 14-yard pass to get into range, finishing the drive with a score and conversion (two points, not one, such was the pattern Friday) despite a great series from defenders Villarreal – a sophomore who has wheels and will hit ye – and junior LB Frank Jackson.
The strangest thing about Friday – and there many such – may have been the clock. After several of the touchdowns, the ticker kept ticking during the two-point tries, which unless the rules have been changed qualifies as a consistent and incorrect use of time. More on that later, but it was maddening, 10 or 20 seconds lost on every situation which heretofore had been, by rule, a dead-ball play. Odd.
Give credit to the Jags, though, because they returned to work with renewed vigor after the Lopez score, Perez bursting for 13 yards and junior Ivan Avitia adding a jaunt of 11. Nunez then sneaked through the defense and down the right sideline for a superb 75-yard dash, only to see the TD come back due to an illegal block. The refs whistled the Jags 12 times for a total of 105 yards Friday and Lopez was also mistake-prone, committing 11 infractions to the debit of 70 yards. As stated, each contingent suffered a touchdown-nullifying moment during the night, fleshing out the even-Steven nature of the encounter.
Salas and staff have been constructing a winning mentality in the program for the last season and two games, and it appears to be taking root. Early in the fourth, still up by 1, Econ ended a Lopez possession thanks to two sticks from sophomore defender Carlos Mendez, and took over possession at its own 32, intent on finishing the job. A sharp 9-play drive showed that the Orange was winning the conditioning battle, as Gaytan and Nunez carved up the fading Lopez D, inside out. The elusive Delgadillo also made his presence felt with a sliding carry for ample yardage, and from the 28, Nunez came up big. Seeming to disappear into the morass of a pile, Nunez instead emerged with open sights, jetting in for the six at 3:48. At 3:43, the latest two-pointer came up just short, however, leaving the margin at 7, 29-22. Time for one last Lopez rush, or one more Econ stop.
The home team converted a third-down snap to keep rolling and from midfield tossed the bomb that landed home, giving possession to the Lobos at the Econ 14. On the next snap, Slovak danced around left end and made the grade, following that with a two-point run that installed the Lobos in front, 30-29, with 1:14 left. The TD had come at 1:20, by the way.
Econ, which did not complete a pass Friday in five attempts, could not do much with the final series, and summarily, excruciatingly, went down to defeat. Yet it was another thriller between two schools fighting to get into the conversation in their respective leagues, a 1-point nail-biter to go with the topsy-turvy 3-point gem of 2022.
And as Salas noted, his team is getting better all the time.
“There is so much youth here, and sometimes our inexperience still shows,” said the coach, who got a strong game from freshman corner Dereck Cantu (eight tackles, a couple of the open-field variety). A glance at the tackling charts reveals: 13 of 17 names were underclassmen. Of the 52 kids on the Jag roster, only 17 are in their swan song as seniors.
Nunez was active from behind center, running with haste and vision, while the other backs, Perez and Gaytan especially, were productive behind a line paced by junior tackle Adan Perales and senior center Ruben Abundis. Linebacker Charlie Bell, a seasoned vet, was solid Friday as the defense seemed to get stronger as the night wore on. Plenty of positives, as the leader knows.
Now it’s the home opener for Econ, Friday against a Carroll team that is 1-1: a win over Edcouch-Elsa followed by a loss to Gregory-Portland. The Tigers were going nowhere before last year’s 5-5 mark, a .500 season that ended a gruesome stretch in which the program won just three of 49 games. They’re decent now and should be a real test for the Jags, who have been competitive in both games to start 2023, and now must continue to exhibit the improvement the coaches are banking on.
“We have to stick with it, and I think we will,” Salas noted after Friday’s harrowing experience. “I know we have what it takes to be competitive; we’re showing that. But we’re not yet to a point where we can make the plays in the clutch, which is what we have to do, to win games. Life lessons in football, every day.
“We need to come out and get a better start, we’ve had trouble so far on that: we tend to come out and wait to see what the other team’s got. What we want to do is just show them right off the bat what we have, be more aggressive. More confident. Young team, man, but I like them, it’s a good bunch and they’re going to keep working.”