In a battle of unbeaten high school football teams, somebody had to lose last Saturday night at Albuquerque’s Milne Stadium when the Rio Grande Ravens entertained the Los Lunas Tigers. In a hard-fought contest that lived up to the pre-game hype, the Ravens’ triple-option offense wore down the Tigers’ defense and escaped with a 24-21 win.
Both teams entered the game 2-0 and both teams may have deserved to keep their perfect record in tact. For their part, the Ravens controlled the ball most of the game. With quarterback Doug McDaniel guiding the offense, Rio Grande ran 27 more plays from scrimmage than did the Tigers. In addition, the Ravens ground out 19 first downs compared to just five for Los Lunas.
“They’re a good football team,” Tiger head coach Avilio Chavez said of the Ravens, who have never won a district title in the school’s more-than-40-year history.
The difference between victory and defeat for Los Lunas was three second-half turnovers and the Tigers’ failure to make plays in key situations.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. “Our kids played hard. I’m real proud of them,” Chavez said. “They played hard for four quarters. We had a chance there at the end.”
The Tigers had chances late in the game. But wide outs Alex Sanchez and Jason Gallegos couldn’t hang on to long passes thrown by quarterback Mark Delgado on the Tigers’ last two possessions.
Sanchez had a big game. He made four catches for 170 yards, including one for a 68-yard touchdown.
“They were looking for Johnny (Sanchez) to run, and that opened up the passing game,” said the receiver. “Our line blocked good enough to give Mark time to get me the ball. And Jason was helping me get open because we were doing crossing patterns.”
Delgado hit Sanchez on a slant pattern at midfield early in the fourth quarter, and Sanchez raced the rest of the way to the end zone to cut Rio’s lead to three points.
Just before the first half ended, Delgado connected with Sanchez on a 65-yard pass down the left sideline. Sanchez was tackled from behind at the 10-yard line with just eight seconds left. Out of timeouts, the Tigers bumbled a last play that might have added to their 13-10 lead at the half.
Los Lunas linebacker Billy Chavez made a big play to keep the Ravens off the scoreboard in the first quarter. McDaniel broke his first big run of the game and was seemingly on his way to a 26-yard score when Chavez knocked the ball out from under McDaniel’s arm as he was just one stride from scoring. The ball went out the back of the end zone for a Tiger touchback.
After Los Lunas went three and out, Rio scored the first points of the game when McDaniel kicked a low 37-yard field goal that barely cleared the cross bar.
The Los Lunas offense didn’t get into gear until the second quarter. Taking over at the Rio 42, Alex Sanchez caught a pass for 24 yards, and Johnny Sanchez finished off the two-play drive with an 18-yard run.
Gabe Apodaca kicked the extra point, and Los Lunas led, 7-3.
The Ravens answered back on their next possession. McDaniel hit Jose Hernandez in the end zone for a 12-yard score and converted the extra-point kick to put Rio up again, 10-7.
Los Lunas put together another two-play touchdown drive after the ensuing kickoff sailed through the end zone for a touchback. Damon Williams ran eight yards up the middle. Then Johnny Sanchez took a pitch, got around the left end and no one could catch him as he raced 72 yards for a score.
Apodaca missed the extra point, but Los Lunas led 13-10.
Johnny Sanchez, who finished with 157 yards rushing, was held to 39 in the second half as the Ravens took over the game.
In the third quarter, McDaniel broke two runs for more than 10 yards to help the Ravens recapture the lead. His sneak from the 1 put Rio ahead for good, 17-13, with 2:49 left in the period.
Los Lunas had trouble with the exchange from center throughout the game. It cost them on their next possession, when the Ravens recovered on the Los Lunas 14. Four plays later, Jonathan Lueras scored on a two-yard run to put the Ravens up, 24-13, with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Tigers bounced back with the Delgado to Alex Sanchez score. Andrew Lente then caught a pass over the middle for the two-point conversion and the final points of the game.
Delgado, who finished 6 for 13 for 168 yards, threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter while trying to connect with his wide outs for another big play.
It was a tough loss for the Tigers. Los Lunas generated more yards of offense than Rio Grande (356-324), but Rio controlled the ball too well for the Tigers to earn the win.
“Our defense played well,” coach Chavez said. “But I really think they were on the field too long.”
The Tiger defense was able to contain the dangerous McDaniel in the first half, holding him to 64 yards on 14 carries. But the junior ran for more than 100 yards in the second half and finished with 167 yards rushing. He did not attempt a pass in the second half, after completing 4 of 7 passes for 31 yards before intermission.
The Tigers walked off the field feeling it was a game they should have won.
“It’s a sour taste,” Delgado said afterwards. “I guess they just made the better plays, but I don’t want to say that.
“We can’t wait to get back on the field again.”
The Tigers (2-1) return to their home field at 7 p.m. Friday when they host the Eldorado Eagles (0-3).