McALLEN — Friday’s installment of The Monitor’s Game of the Week may also be an early candidate for game of the year.
In what can only be described as a clash of the titans, No. 1 Edinburg Vela and No. 2 McAllen Memorial will duke it out in Edinburg for the top spot in the RGVSports.com top 10 poll and bragging rights — for the time being — as the top team throughout the Valley.
“We know a lot of people aren’t necessarily picking us for this game, but we take that as a chip on our shoulder and we’ll carry that into the game,” Mustangs senior linebacker Michael Morales said. “Of course you always want to have the spotlight on you and perform in the biggest moments in crunch time. Hopefully that’s the case for us this Friday.”
The two programs have been the standard-bearers for RGV high school football for years.
The Mustangs have tallied 11 straight winning seasons under head coach Bill Littleton and have been city champs for eight seasons in a row. The SaberCats, meanwhile, haven’t lost to a Valley school since November 2016.
Since then, they’ve reeled off 21 straight wins over area teams under head coach John Campbell.
“I think he’s an outstanding coach who’s proved himself here,” Littleton said. “Any time you go 24-2 over the last two years, that says something itself right there. I have the utmost respect for that football coach and I think he does a great job. He gets the most out of kids, he’s a very detailed coach and has done a really good job on the football field.”
Vela topped Memorial 40-21 when the two teams met in McAllen a year ago but trailed as late as the third quarter. If that’s the case again this time around, the SaberCats could find themselves in trouble.
Through two weeks so far, Vela has only mustered one score in the second half of games this season. That was a 49-yard touchdown pass that came during the fourth quarter of a five-point win at Laredo United.
Last week, the SaberCats nearly blew a 28-14 halftime lead against Brownsville Hanna when they allowed the Eagles to find the end zone twice in the fourth quarter before a missed go-ahead field goal attempt with 8 seconds to go saved them from a loss.
“We were at the road game watching that game on our phones. We were really interested in what was going to happen there,” McAllen Memorial senior running back Campbell Speights said. “There was a lot that we saw there and hopefully we can take it and use it to our advantage.”
Vela has struggled to prolong drives at times, going 3-for-18 on third down conversions and 1-for-6 on fourth. The team also recently lost two starters along the offensive line due to injury, but that hasn’t stopped senior quarterback AJ Sotelo and the SaberCats offense from putting up big numbers.
Sotelo has completed 63% of his throws for 546 yards, six passing touchdowns and two picks two weeks into the season, while the SaberCat offense has averaged 39.5 points per game. Morales and his teammates know that slowing down Vela’s passing attack will be the key defensively.
“He’s a really good quarterback, and we’re game-planning for him. We’ll see what we can do about it,” Morales said. “Our first game we played against a really good quarterback in Victor Campos and it was tough bringing him down. That was a big part of our defense that we needed to fix up and we did a lot more tackling drills. The tackling aspect of it was definitely better (last week).”
Memorial, however, enters the contest fresh off a dominant 51-10 thrashing of Sharyland High last week. It was a resounding response after the team also nearly escaped with a victory over Hanna, after a potential game-tying two-point conversion with less than 2 minutes to play was waived off due to an illegal touching flag.
The Mustangs’ offensive attack relies much more on the run than the pass unlike Vela, but they’ve shown signs in the early going of being more vertical in their approach. Senior quarterback Joseph Lara has averaged 16.7 yards per pass attempt in 2019 and could prove to be the x-factor in an even matchup.
But make no mistake, the key for the SaberCats defense will be playing the run and trying to bottle up Speights. The senior has rushed for 504 yards and eight touchdowns in the early going, with five of those scores coming on runs of 50 yards or more.
Speights — who is averaging 13.6 yards per carry — had a streak of 10 straight 100-yard games on the ground snapped when he faced Vela last season, which held him to a season-low 57 yards. He’s rattled off 10 consecutive 100-yard games since then, too.
“My mindset is do whatever I can to help us win. I don’t really go into the game thinking that I need to score this many, I need to do this or I need to do that. If they want to give the ball to somebody else and let them score, that’s awesome. I’m just here to make sure we can get a ‘W’ and do whatever I can in my power to make sure that happens.”
Memorial’s defense demonstrated last week against the Rattlers that it can limit big plays, something that bit them against Hanna late in the game. For a pair of teams whose offenses thrive on their big-play ability, the winner of this one will likely come down to which squad can make the other more one dimensional — containing the run for Vela and limiting the pass for Memorial.
Kickoff between the Mustangs and SaberCats is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Richard R. Flores Stadium in Edinburg.