McALLEN — When the McAllen Memorial Mustangs and Edinburg Vela SaberCats meet on the field at Richard R. Flores Stadium in The Monitor’s Game of the Week, the success or failure of each team will depend upon a critical matchup between two game-breaking players.
Edinburg Vela junior quarterback AJ Sotelo leads an explosive, high-powered offense into battle, while McAllen Memorial senior linebacker and defensive captain Michael Morales will do his best to slow him down.
“He’s a really great quarterback,” Morales said of Sotelo. “We’re game-planning for him, so we’re going to see what we can do about it. We need to make sure we watch a lot of film on him because we know he’s a really great quarterback.”
Sotelo enters as one of the most poised pocket passers throughout the Valley. The senior signal caller completed 60% of his passes for 295 yards, a touchdown and an interception in his team’s 28-27 victory over Brownsville Hanna a week ago.
On the year, he’s thrown for 546 yards and six scores on 34-of-54 passing, accounting for a big chunk of Vela’s total offense.
“He’s very poised in the pocket,” McAllen Memorial head coach Bill Littleton said. “He makes good decisions. He’s got three outstanding receivers and a really good offensive line, so when you have that it’s a pretty deadly combination to have.”
The SaberCats are a pass-heavy offense with the ability to put lots of points on the board. Sotelo’s passing has made up 81% of Vela’s total offense on the year and much of that is predicated on the team’s big-play capability with receivers Justin Cantu, Justin Vega and Kevin Rojas.
Memorial saw that first hand when the two teams met a year ago.
“They came out passing on the first play and we let up that long ball,” Morales said. “That’s why I said earlier we can’t let up those deep plays because they got away from us in the first half. It was just hard to catch up and we couldn’t come back from that big lead they had gained.”
For Morales and the Mustangs, it’s all going to boil down to preventing the big plays and exploiting weaknesses in the SaberCats’ offense.
The team struggled against another strong quarterback with a host of talented wide receivers when it faced Brownsville Hanna’s Victor Campos in Week 1. Campos used a bevy of big plays down the stretch to claw back into the contest down the stretch, and Memorial’s defense has been working hard to correct those mistakes ever since.
“I think that’s something we definitely need to keep to a minimum this week is letting up the big plays on defense,” Morales said. “We need to make sure we defend well against those big plays because we know Vela’s a really strong team, and once they get that momentum it’s going to be tough to stop them. That’s a big goal for us this week.”
Morales might be the most well-equipped player on the Mustangs’ defense to reign in Sotelo. He’s a talented pass rusher and equally adept at dropping back in coverage.
The senior linebacker — an honorable mention all-state selection in 2018 — has led his squad in tackles in each of its first two games with 18 total.
He’s got a sack and three tackles for loss to go along with six quarterback hurries, which could play a big factor against the SaberCats with injuries at both of the offensive tackle spots.
Morales is still searching for his first interception of the season, but in his three-year varsity career he’s tallied seven picks and 19 pass deflections. He’ll have to play a big role in slowing down Sotelo and Vela’s aerial attack to have a chance of pulling off the upset.
No. 2 McAllen Memorial and No. 1 Edinburg Vela kick off the Game of the Week at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Edinburg.