McALLEN — When the Weslaco East Wildcats take the field to face the McAllen Rowe Warriors in a high-profile area-round playoff clash, the key to the game will boil down to the running game.

For the Wildcats, it will be all about whether or not their relentless rushing attack can find a rhythm early on, while the Warriors’ defense will have to be able to clamp down on its opponents stable of runners.

More specifically, the two X-factors in this matchup will be Weslaco East senior quarterback Ramsey Vasquez and Rowe senior middle linebacker Josiah Alonzo.

“Coach (Mike) Burgett and his coaching staff do a great job of coaching those kids over there. They’re in the third round year in and year out. They’ve done it for many years. We know that they’re going to be prepared, and we also need to come out and be prepared,” McAllen Rowe head coach Bobby Flores said. “I know their style is not anything that’s going to be spread out. It’s smash-mouth football. They rely on their physicality on both sides, so we’re going to have to match that and play well to challenge them.”

Vasquez has been one of the most dangerous signal callers in the Valley this season, but he’s done most of his damage on the ground. He’s thrown for 275 yards and five touchdowns on 18-of-27 passing, but those numbers are dwarfed by what he’s been able to accomplish with his feet.

He’s run for a team-leading 1,286 yards on the season while tallying 15 scores on the ground and averaging 7.7 yards per carry.

“They’re going to load to one side and they’re going to run,” Alonzo said. “They’re known to run, but I believe we’re great against running teams and I know we can do it if we put all of our effort into this. We have a defensive scheme to stop it, so hopefully we’ll be looking pretty good on Friday night.”

Rowe struggled at times during the season stopping elite runners, especially against La Joya and McAllen Memorial. But the Warriors’ defense stepped up in a big way against Laredo Alexander in the bi-district round and the team believes they can carry that momentum forward.

“Coach is telling us that they’re a running offense. We were scouting their plays and they have four people in the backfield and one receiver, which I think means our defense has to step up because we weren’t able to stop the run against La Joya or Memorial,” Rowe junior running back Nick Meehan said. “They’re showing us how they block and all that stuff, so we’re doing specific exercises to counter that.”

Rowe’s defense has particularly improved in two key areas recently: forcing takeaways and dominating the line of scrimmage. The unit will need to do both to keep the Wildcats’ offense off the field and maintain control in the time of possession battle.

“Those front four being healthy has definitely been a key to our success defensively. They have a big challenge this week and they have to continue to play hard and play tough,” Flores said of the team’s performance against Alexander. “I think that really put some pressure on their quarterback and really slowed their offense down. That was really the difference and our linebackers came in there and made some big plays.”

Alonzo and fellow linebacker Derek Luna, as well defensive linemen Omar Villarreal and Eric Perales, have been big reasons for that positive turnover margin. The four have delivered devastatingly big hits all season and have actually forced more turnovers against the run than the pass.

They’ve combined for 26 tackles for loss, 25 quarterback hurries and nine sacks in addition to forcing 10 fumbles and recovering seven of them.

“When those hits happen and when those special plays happen, it lights a spark in our game. All of us working together and pushing each other we’ll say, ‘No, I’m going to get that hit,’” Alonzo said. “We try to one-up each other, so that just lights a bigger spark for our team. There’s nothing better than forcing a turnover and giving the ball back to our offense because we know when we get momentum, they’re going to get in the end zone.

But to stop an elite rusher like Vasquez, Alonzo will have to take charge as the team’s defensive leader in containing him.

“He’s very smart in understanding situations on defense. He knows and looks at formations and is able to move people into the right position when he sees a certain formation,” Flores said. “He utilizes his quickness and speed to beat people and I also think he does a really good job of studying the opponent and sees plays before they even happen on third and long or certain situations. He knows what’s coming and when you have a leader that can go out there and see it and knows what’s coming, he can relay that message to the other guys so that they’re ready for what might be coming.”

For Alonzo and the rest of the Warriors’ defense, that means controlling the line of scrimmage and stopping Vasquez at the second and third levels to contain his explosiveness.

“We’ve got to make tackles. I think that’s one thing we do lack a little bit, but we’ve been working hard this whole season, especially right now that we’re in the playoffs, on tackling,” he said. “We have to have a good push. If we have a good push on the D-line, it sets everything back on the offensive side and it slows everything down.”

But Rowe will be motivated more than ever, playing for its first trip to the regional semi-finals in school history. Alonzo and his fellow defenders are looking to capitalize on that energy and home crowd to bring the intensity needed to corral Vasquez and slow down the Wildcats.

“Coach actually surprised us at the end of the game saying we were going to play at home,” Alonzo said. “That was amazing hearing that we were going to play at home and have this atmosphere here and this community here. They’re depending on us and we like when we get that. We know we need to put on a show and put four quarters together again this week.”