PHARR — On a drizzly Thursday night at PSJA Stadium, senior quarterback Justin Morales was methodically marching the PSJA High offense down the field.
The first-year starter behind center seemed to do it all for the Bears — with his arm and legs — as his ability to scramble for big gains caught the Hornets’ defense off guard more than once. Senior running back JR Vasquez helped out with elusive runs out of the shotgun, and senior receivers Miguel Flores and Marco Guajardo played big roles in the team’s quick-hit passing game.
But after pushing the ball 70 yards downfield and under duress, Morales threw an interception inside the red zone and the Bears never regained momentum, as sacks, costly penalties and special teams miscues stung PSJA in a 33-6 loss to Flour Bluff.
“We had some bright spots on that first drive. We got down to their 25 or 30, but we’ve just got to build on that,” Morales said. “That’s on me throwing a pick right there. That was really costly and changed the whole game. Momentum just switched from there.”
The offense was never able to get back its composure. The Bears picked up five of their six first downs in the opening half on their first drive, and intense defensive pressure from the Hornets continued to build throughout the night.
“I really do think that was the turning point. If we could have scored, that would have given our offense some confidence,” Bears head coach Lupe Rodriguez said. “I think once that happened, our offense kind of put their head down and never recovered.”
Morales was constantly on the move — rolling out, scrambling or being swallowed up behind the line of scrimmage — as a young offensive line was unable to slow the tide of Flour Bluff defenders streaming in as part of an overwhelming pass rush.
“On the offensive line we need to find some answers,” Rodriguez said. “We made a change at halftime with our center. I knew coming in that our O-line had a lot to prove and Justin did get rattled a little bit, it just kind of carried over through. A lot of it was our O-line’s fault, but some were also his from the previous rush and sacks that he was kind of looking for instead of paying attention to the receivers down field.”
Morales was able to make some plays when protection broke down, but the sacks prevented the team from establishing and maintaining effective drives.
He finished the first half completing 6-of-12 passes for 50 yards but was sacked five times. He was sacked three more times in the second half, which effectively killed his side’s offensive momentum.
“We couldn’t really get into the type of rhythm that we wanted to,” Morales said. “We’ve just got to look at the film and regroup as an offense.”
Moreover, the Bears struggled at times to hold on to the football, muffing a punt that was recovered by the Hornets deep in their own territory and fumbling on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak on their side of the field too.
Penalties also played a decisive factor, as a costly holding call against PSJA’s offensive line late in the third quarter pushed the team out of field goal range and forced another punt.
“We gave up some big plays and miscues on special teams that killed us today,” Rodriguez said. “Sacks were a real drive killer and then we had penalties and false starts from our center, which put us in bad situations. But hats off to Flour Bluff. They’re always a good team year in and year out; we’ve just got to grow and get better.”
Defensively, the Bears actually played a somewhat solid game. A few big plays by the Flour Bluff offense — owed mostly to missed tackles in the open field — proved to be damaging and resulted in a few scores.
The only score that came from outside of the red zone once the game was already out of hand on a 59-yard touchdown pass from Hornets quarterback Andru Schmidt to receiver Preston Wilkey, which pushed the score to 30-0 on Flour Bluff’s first drive of the second half.
“Defensively, I felt that was our strong point,” Rodriguez said. “I felt we could kind of lean on them as our offense grew as we went. And we’ve got to make some corrections there. We gave up some big plays.”
But more often than not, PSJA’s defense was forced into defending a short field due to special teams mistakes, turnovers or a combination of the two. With their offense unable to hold on to the ball for much of the night, the Bears’ defense spent too much time on the field and wore it out as the game progressed.
Hornets junior running back Isaac Miles torched the PSJA defense in the first half for 136 yards on 12 carries before sitting for most of the second.
The Bears’ offense finally put points on the board in the fourth quarter, as Morales connected with Flores who used his blistering speed to scamper into the end zone from 37 yards out. The score gave the team reason for optimism moving forward.
“It’s a big momentum boost heading into next week knowing we’ve got something to build on,” Morales said. “We know we can put up points. We believe in ourselves. We’ve been doing it our whole lives working together, we’ve just got to believe in ourselves and that touchdown was big for us heading into the rest of the season.”
PSJA High will return to action and look for its first win next week when it travels to face Corpus Christi King at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 6.