PHARR — After forcing a three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, senior quarterback Justin Morales and the PSJA High offense trotted back onto the field.
Morales was in rhythm with all of his receivers as they played pitch and catch as the Bears drove down the field. On the outskirts of the red zone, Morales fired a bullet pass in the direction of senior wideouts Miguel Flores and Ethan Castillo.
Flores and Castillo were running shallow in routes toward one another and looked confused as to who the pass was intended for before it bounced off their fingertips. Eagle Pass linebacker Sergio Lopez plucked the ball out of the air and hustled 85 yards down the sideline among a pack of teammates for a touchdown.
Lopez’s interception return was one of many that helped the Eagles pull off a massive, improbable comeback win fueled by their 42 unanswered points to top the Bears 42-31 in the opening round of the playoffs Friday at PSJA Stadium.
“It was a mountain to climb,” Eagle Pass senior quarterback Allan Rodriguez said. “It was crazy.”
“Being up 31-0, I would have never known the outcome of this game would have ended the way that it did,” PSJA High head coach Lupe Rodriguez. “I couldn’t even tell you at what point the tables turned on us. We could never recover, and it seemed like we could never catch a break after that.”
It was a bizarrely unique game in which the Bears seized what appeared to be a commanding 31-0 lead midway through the second quarter before the tide turned gradually and completely.
Eagle Pass head coach Tom Gonzalez likened his team’s preposterous Class 6A bi-district playoff comeback to the biggest playoff comeback in professional football history.
“It kind of felt like the Buffalo Bills versus the Houston Oilers right there. It was exciting,” he said. “We played a very good PSJA team and we deserved to be here also. Our hats off to them, we respect them a lot, but I think our kids played a little bit better here at the end.”
PSJA High scored on the opening possession of the game, driving inside its opponent’s 10-yard line before settling for a 24-yard field goal.
From there, the Bears’ offense went on absolute tear, scoring touchdowns on four of their next five possessions. Morales dove into the end zone from a yard out on a quarterback keeper before firing a 51-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Marco Guajardo and another 10-yard lob to Flores in the back of the end zone, while Castillo added a fourth with his legs.
Morales finished with 409 yards on 41-of-67 passing. Guajardo led all receivers with 158 yards through the air, while Castillo and Flores chipped in 92 and 94 receiving yards, respectively.
It was an all-around team effort, however, with scores being set up by a pair of interceptions, a fumble recovery on a kickoff and a successfully recovered onside kick.
“They gave us a lot of stuff in the first half, a lot of underneath stuff,” Lupe Rodriguez said. “I know that they respected the speed that we had in our receivers, but then they kind of clamped up a little bit on us and forced us to do some other things away from our game plan. Even at that, we were still able to move the ball.”
But that’s when the game started to change for everyone involved. The Bears stopped scoring and the Eagles started right before half.
Allan Rodriguez hit receiver Jacob Ruiz for a 24-yard touchdown pass to put Eagle Pass on the board, and running back Isaac Caballero added a 23-yard touchdown scamper before the break to trim PSJA’s lead to 17.
“When we got those two touchdowns going into the half, we felt that we could start getting stuff done,” Allan Rodriguez said. “We started seeing the opportunities more.”
As soon as the Eagles realized they were back in the ballgame, the tide began to turn. Lopez’s long defensive touchdown helped trim the Bears’ lead to 10 out of the gate in the second half.
It was the first of many turnovers, as the Eagles’ defense went on to snag three interceptions and recover two forced fumbles in the second half that swung the momentum in its direction.
“It was huge. They were gaining momentum back and then we kind of stopped them with those,” Gonzalez said of his defense’s takeaways. “It proved to be the difference in the game.”
Many of the turnovers were the result of pure bad luck, like Lopez’s long interception return. Two of the three PSJA picks thrown were off tipped balls that found the right person at the right time in space, and one of the two fumbles occurred as a Bears receiver was tackled and rolled over a pile of defenders as the ball came loose.
But nonetheless, the Bears continued to move the ball efficiently against the Eagles. They simply couldn’t finish and sustain drives in key moments.
“Even going into halftime up 31-14, I figured, ‘OK, we’re fine,’” Lupe Rodriguez said. “But coming out in the second half, we had a lot of drives in scoring range in the red zone that just ended up in their hands, whether it was tipped balls for an interception, strips, a pick for a touchdown, etc. It just seemed like it steamrolled on us and we could never get out of that funk.”
The Bears also badly needed a stop, but Allan Rodriguez and the Eagles’ offense wouldn’t allow it. He hit Ruiz for another touchdown to make it a one-score game.
“He gives me the confidence,” he said. “He just says, ‘Throw it up,’ and I know he’s going to be there. Even though it’s not a personal connection, I just know he’s there.”
Allan Rodriguez ran it in himself to give the Eagles their first lead of the night, and Ruiz threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to make it a double-digit lead in the fourth. Rodriguez finished with 249 yards on 17-of-31 passing, Ruiz tallied 142 receiving yards, and both counted three total touchdowns.
The Bears had a chance at the very end, but fumbled on the goal line and watched the ball roll out of bounds for a touchback.
“I’ve never seen so many unlucky plays in a game like that where the tide just turned like that, and we could never get out of it,” Lupe Rodriguez said. “Even on drives that we had it continued. I just blame myself as a head coach, there’s no one else to blame.”
The Eagle Pass Eagles advances to the second round, where they will face the Edinburg Vela SaberCats.