McALLEN — When the McAllen Memorial Mustangs and the Weslaco High Panthers take to the gridiron for a heavyweight area playoff tilt, the key for each team to emerge victorious will be whoever can maintain an edge in a pivotal matchup.
The most significant X-factors in this contest will be dual-threat Weslaco quarterback Jacob Cavazos and Memorial’s Michael Morales and Diego Villarreal, two of the Mustangs defense’s most-seasoned senior leaders.
“Their quarterback is an exceptional athlete and everything kind of runs through him,” McAllen Memorial head coach Bill Littleton said of Cavazos. “We talked about that and we’ve got to have a good game plan to slow him down. Obviously we’re not going to shut him down; he’s one of those kids that you don’t shut down.”
Cavazos has been the lynchpin of a high-powered Panthers offense all season, as he’s established himself as one of the Valley’s top dual-threat signal callers.
The senior has been lethal through the air this year, completing 65.2% of his passes for 1,747 yards and a 16:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s been nearly just as dangerous on the ground too, running for 955 yards on the season while averaging 7.0 yards per carry and scoring 17 touchdowns with his feet.
“They have a great quarterback — a great running quarterback and a great passing quarterback. It’s going to be a challenge to contain them and they’re a great team,” Morales said. “They made it to the second round and they deserve it for sure, so we’ve got to be on point and on focus this week to come out with a victory.”
What makes Cavazos truly so dangerous, however, is his ability to improvise on the fly and make key plays when the defense least expects it. That was especially the case in the Panthers’ bi-district win over Los Fresnos, in which he both ran and threw for more than 100 yards.
“He’s got a lot of intangibles to him and he finds a way to make things happen. Those are things that you don’t coach,” Littleton said. “He can extend plays and when he extends plays, he does a great job of making things happen either with his feet or his arm. He presents lots of problems and we’ll have to be on point and really have a good ballgame to slow him down.”
The key for the Mustangs in slowing down Cavazos will come from Villarreal’s potent play in the secondary defending the pass and Morales’ ability to rally the front seven to contain a mobile quarterback.
The strength of Memorial’s defense all season has been the play of its secondary, specifically their ability to force turnovers and keep opposing offenses off the field.
“That definitely plays a big role. If you’re an offense, it’s kind of demoralizing,” Morales said. “Maybe your defense got a stop on our offense, which is really hard to stop, and then we come right onto the field and take the ball away. It’s gone and like what can you do to stop this team?”
The trio of Villarreal and fellow defensive backs Justin Chairez and Omar Salazar have been lights out in pass coverage, combining for 15 interceptions and 29 pass deflections. Villarreal, who leads the team with eight picks and three in the regular season finale, credits their success as a group to all the additional hours they put in.
“Our coaches do a good job every week,” Villarreal said. “We’re one of the only positions that comes in early in the morning to watch film and then we watch extra hours of film with our team.”
He’s been a great player all year long and I love the kid to death,” Littleton said. “He came back from a very serious injury in the spring when he dislocated his hip in May and he was back out here in August. That says a lot about him. It says a lot about the kind of rehab he did over the summer and the kind of heart he has.”
Morales, meanwhile, has been a leader in Memorial’s front seven along with middle linebacker Christian Sanchez and defensive end Sebastian Turk. Morales, Sanchez and Turk have combined for 16 sacks and represent three of five Mustangs defenders with at least 10 quarterback hurries as part of a prolific pass rush.
“I think it’s helped a great deal. I think the pass rush has improved greatly since the start of the season to what it’s been now,” Morales said. “Now they’re doing a heck of a job out there pressuring the quarterback and trying to limit those long chances he has in the pocket.”
Memorial has also thrived blowing up plays in the backfield, tallying 101 tackles for loss as a defensive unit. That could spell trouble for Cavazos, who often rolls out to make plays out of the pocket.
But for Morales, Villarreal and the rest of the Mustangs defense, it’s all about taking comfort in relying on the man lining up beside them.
“At any moment a receiver can run us off, and then we have to come downfield and make a play. But we’re going to focus on the pass first,” Villarreal said. “Our linebackers and defensive line have been doing a good job, so we’re going to let them do their job and take care of the receivers.”
“We call it team defense: you play your role and your responsibility and you know the guy next to you has your back,” Morales said. “It’s huge and it’s a confidence booster and relief at the same time. I know that as long as I get my job done, we can come out with this victory because I know my teammates are going to do the same thing.”