PHARR — For the first time in the 2019 football season, The Monitor’s Game of the Week will head to Pharr for one of the Valley’s fiercest rivalries between the PSJA High Bears (2-2, 1-0) and PSJA North Raiders (3-1, 1-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at PSJA ISD Stadium.
The Bears and Raiders have been two of the top teams in District 30-6A and have enjoyed much more recent success than other area programs.
After a shaky 1-2 start in non-district play last season, PSJA High rattled off a five-game winning streak at the start of the district slate to bring home a district championship before falling in the bi-district round of the playoffs 34-28 in overtime to Eagle Pass.
PSJA North, meanwhile, finished in a tie for second place in the final district standings from 2018 before becoming the only 30-6A team to advance to the second round of the state playoffs, topping Laredo United South 25-17 and ultimately falling 43-35 in overtime at San Benito.
The definitive inflection point for both teams last season, though, was when they faced each other. Both schools have experienced remarkable runs ever since.
The Bears and the Raiders have combined to win 14 out of their last 21 games since they last met on the gridiron.
The 2018 edition of this intense football rivalry was far and away the most tightly contested game for either squad during district play, as PSJA High escaped with a 10-7 victory.
In what most spectators had pegged as a sure-fire, high-scoring shootout turned into a defensive slugfest. Neither the Bears nor Raiders enjoyed much success running the ball in that contest, as the two teams only combined for 141 yards on the ground and 3.2 yards per carry.
The only two scoring plays in that matchup also came from a pair of players who won’t be in uniform this time around.
PSJA North running back Arturo Beltran found the end zone on the ground for the Raiders’ only points that night, who has since graduated. So has former PSJA High quarterback Trey Guajardo, who accounted for the Bears’ only trip to the end zone on a run of his own.
PSJA High will have to look to first-year starter and senior quarterback Justin Morales to help lead the way offensively in this year’s installation of its biggest rivalry.
Morales has played well in the early going and shown improvement from week to week through the first half of the season. He’s the only signal caller in 30-6A to eclipse 1,000 yards through the air this season (1,070) and also leads the district with 10 touchdown passes.
Despite a deep wide receiving corps that includes some of the Valley’s top pass catchers in seniors Miguel Flores, Marco Guajardo and Ethan Castillo, Morales has struggled at times in regards to accuracy and holding onto the football.
He’s completing 60.4% of his passes in an offensive scheme that sees him throw a lot and he turned the ball over at least once in each of PSJA High’s non-district games this season. But there are reasons to be encouraged by his most recent performances.
Coming off a 70-14 thrashing of the La Joya High Coyotes in the district opener, Morales threw for a season-high four touchdown passes, tallied his best completion percentage rate to date (74.1%) and didn’t commit any turnovers for the first time this year. He added 52 rushing yards as well, demonstrating once again that he should be respected as one of 30-6A’s legitimate dual-threat options.
He’ll need to keep that up this week to keep the Bears in the game, as he faces a smothering secondary led by ballhawking Raiders safety Seven Sanchez and a relentless pass rush headed by linebackers Aaaron Alvarez and Micah Lopez.
If Morales can keep it up, that will only place some added pressure on PSJA North quarterback Iziaah Rangel in his second game back behind center.
Rangel looked sharp in his return last week against the La Joya Juarez-Lincoln Huskies, throwing for more than 200 yards and three passing touchdowns in the first half alone.
He didn’t flash much of his running ability, mostly out of precaution, but did show that PSJA North has dramatically expanded its passing game since the season kickoff. By the end of the night, he had hurled four touchdown passes to four different receivers, which demonstrated for the first time that the Raiders have the ability to share the wealth through the air.
But the Raiders’ offense was marred by inconsistency in the second half against the Huskies that nearly caused their lead to evaporate. A litany of penalty calls, fumbles and failed third- and fourth-down conversions limited its scoring ability to big plays.
PSJA North won’t be able to afford that this week against a Bears defense that forced five turnovers a week ago against the Coyotes, including four fumbles. Senior outside linebacker Jayden Arrington jarred the ball loose three times by himself, which could be majorly problematic for Rangel and the Raiders if it takes away their potent rushing attack.
Whether this edition lives up to expectations as an offensive shootout or looks more like last season’s defensive stalemate, the winner of the PSJA High-PSJA North rivalry will gain the inside track for a hotly-contested playoff spot and surely set themselves up to make a push for a district crown.