HIDALGO — A strong defensive effort and an uncontainable ground-and-pound attack led the Hidalgo Pirates to a dominant 32-0 victory over the Grulla Gators on Friday night at Bill Pate Memorial Stadium in The Monitor’s Game of the Week and one of the first Texas high school football games in the Rio Grande Valley to be played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hidalgo secured a shutout victory in the District 16-4A DI clash, which also served as each team’s season opener. It was the first varsity high school football game played in Hidalgo County in 222 days.

“It’s amazing. It’s a blessing and a good opportunity for us to have here,” Pirates quarterback Jacob Martinez said. “I just want to thank the school board for making all this happen and give them credit for all of that.”

“The kids were excited to be here, they were nervous and we all had butterflies. … You love to see them out there playing and having some fun, so we’re very thankful for the opportunity,” Hidalgo head football coach Monty Stumbaugh said. “They got after it, they played hard, they played until the whistle, they played with class and we’re all thankful that we’re out here and able to play. It’s a lot better than sitting in that office.”

Martinez and senior running back Zach Carrera were instrumental in setting the Pirates up for success early and often with their speed and physicality.

Hidalgo quarterback Jacob Martinez (1) attempts to carry the ball through Grulla defensive linemen Jorge Guerrero (24) and Derick Amaro (23) in a season opening game at Bill Pate Stadium on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Hidalgo. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Hidalgo’s size advantage up front paid dividends when the offensive line was consistently able to dominate the line of scrimmage and initiate contact, which allowed Carrera, Martinez and others to run wild.

“It was all thanks to our offensive line,” Martinez said. “If we didn’t have such a good line, there’s no way I would have been able to do that, so I’ve got to give credit to those guys and thank God for them.”

“We were very blessed to come away with the ‘W,’” Carrera said. “We’ve been training since school ended with the pandemic, but we’re very blessed to come up with a big win this week.”

An unsportsmanlike conduct flag negated a 35-yard rushing touchdown on the game’s opening drive, but the Pirates were still able to capitalize on a strong opening drive when Martinez dove into the end zone from 1 yard out on a quarterback sneak.

It was his first of two rushing touchdowns, as Martinez scored again on a 72-yard scamper down the sideline while eluding a couple of would-be tacklers in the Grulla secondary.

Carrera, the reigning 16-4A DI Offensive Player of the Year, stole the show on the ground with one big run after another. The Pirates’ senior workhorse back found the end zone twice, including the most dramatic score of the night on a 69-yard sprint to the end zone through multiple Gator defenders.

“I made up for it because on my first touchdown, it was a walk-in touchdown and I celebrated (too early). That’s on me, but I have to give it up for my line. They didn’t miss any blocks and I couldn’t have done it without them running with me to the house,” Carrera said.

“I’ve been coached by Coach Stump now for four years, and now that I’m a senior, I’m very blessed that Stumbaugh has coached us these last four years and taught us.”

Grulla forced a trio of turnovers, picking off two passes and securing a muffed punt fumble, and limited the Pirates’ passing game but otherwise had trouble slowing down Hidalgo’s rushing attack.

“Coach Gonzalez does a great job over there. He’s got some young kids and they’re going to be fine. He does a great job with them,” Stumbaugh said. “They’re always scary and have great speed with those skill-position kids. We were fortunate to be able to control the ball and keep them off the field.”

Hidalgo defensive player Dakoda Cervantes (12) grabs Grulla J.T. Trujio (1) as he carries the ball in a season opening game at Bill Pate Stadium on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Hidalgo. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The Pirates’ defense, meanwhile, was able to effectively contain Grulla’s speedy offensive playmakers. Hidalgo’s defensive ends and linebackers were able to contain Gators senior dual-threat quarterback JT Trujio, forcing him to operate out of the pocket in the face of a heavy pass rush.

“I thought our defense played really well,” Stumbaugh said. “Any time you can get a shutout, you’re happy,” Stumbaugh said. “I really liked the way we were flying to the football. We gave them some stuff early, but what got me is that we were really physical and flying to the football. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

“Defense was a big key in this game, and that’s what wins championships,” Carrera said.

The Hidalgo Pirates (1-0) return to action next Friday night when they visit the Kingsville King Brahmas (0-3) before returning home to play the Raymondville Bearkats (1-0).

“This is just the beginning,” Martinez said. “We’re going to keep getting stronger and moving forward.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter:@ByAndyMcCulloch