PHARR — Despite being home to several prolific running backs, gunslinging quarterbacks and many of the Rio Grande Valley’s most potent offenses, dominant defenses have carried the day so far in District 31-6A at the midway point of a 2020 high school football season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the district’s top teams through the opening weeks of the season are giving new meaning to the age-old adage “defense wins championships.”
As the district separates into zones as teams scramble to reschedule games postponed due to coronavirus concerns, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the 31-6A teams who will be best positioned to weather the uncertainty of the 2020 season and battle their way into the playoffs are the ones who are most sound defensively.
From PSJA Stadium in Pharr to Tom Landry’s Hall of Fame Stadium in Mission and Richard R. Flores Stadium in Edinburg, 31-6A’s most successful squads thus far have been those who have been able to rely on lights-out defense.
The Edinburg Vela SaberCats, who currently share the top ranking in the RGVSports.com Top 10 Poll, were the first group to flex its defensive might by holding the Mission Veterans Patriots to a mere 13 points and corralling game-breaking receiver AJ Gonzaque, a 2019 First-Team All-Area pick by The Monitor.
One night later under the same set of stadium lights, the fourth-ranked Mission High Eagles manhandled the Edinburg High, limiting the Bobcats to 85 total yards on the night and preventing them from earning a first down for the entire first quarter.
“Any time you can win up front, it’s a big deal,” said Mission High head football coach Koy Detmer, whose Eagles lead all 31-6A teams in sacks through two games. “Defensively, we see them every day in practice, and those guys are fast and tough. We’ve got like nine guys returning from last year, so it really prepares our offense. But it was good to see them come out and really fly around and get after those guys early in the game.”
A few miles away, meanwhile, PSJA North pitched a second-half defensive shutout to run away with a come-from-behind victory over the Edinburg Economedes Jaguars. A week later, the Raiders’ Blackshirt defense pulled through again, keeping the team close enough to emerge victorious from a defensive slugfest against Edinburg North.
The Cougars, however, might be the best defense in the Valley to be flying under the radar after two weeks of play. The Edinburg North defensive unit forced a staggering seven turnovers in their season opener against PSJA High — the most takeaways by any Valley defense in a single game this season — and stopped the Bears for the win with a goal-line stand on the game’s final drive.
“It was exciting. I’ve been preaching to the kids and telling everybody that we have a lot of experience,” said Edinburg North head football coach Damian Gonzalez, whose defense returns nine varsity starters from 2019. “Experience came through at the end (against PSJA High). Our guys have a lot of games under their belts and they’ve been in a playoff game. If not for that, we probably would have lost that game.”
The Bears, though, also own an elite-level defense after leading all of District 30-6A last season in yards allowed. PSJA High’s secondary forced a plethora of turnovers against both the Cougars and Eagles, who notched 31-6A’s first defensive shutout of the season against the Bears with a dominant showing Thursday.
But the PSJA High defense made multiple red-zone stops against a high-octane Mission offense that kept the team in the game and figures to keep the Bears in the thick of the playoff hunt moving forward.
“It’s pretty difficult to win a game like that (one against Edinburg North) when you turn the ball over that many times, but we still had an opportunity,” PSJA High head football coach Lupe Rodriguez said, whose Bears currently lead District 31-6A with nine takeaways. “That was the one major positive I took out of that game: we never gave up. That showed the resiliency of our players and our program. We always talk about finding a way, whatever it takes, and they did that by finding a way to bounce back.
“A lot of these (defensive) kids have been a part of our team these past two seasons and they bring a lot of experience. They’ve played against (these offenses) before and in the summer during 7-on-7, so our defense is up to the challenge.”
Overall, District 31-6A’s seven squads are a combined 6-0 this season when holding their opponents to 21 points or less.
The Mission High Eagles have done it twice in two tries so far, while the Edinburg Vela SaberCats are the only other 31-6A team that hasn’t allowed 14 points or more yet this season.
The PSJA North Raiders, meanwhile, have held their opponents to a combined 13 points through the last six quarters of play after surrendering 54 points in their first six quarters defensively this year. The Edinburg High Bobcats also rebounded in a big way defensively, holding the Jags to a single score after struggling to slow down the Eagles.
With half the district off due to COVID concerns this week (Mission, PSJA High and Vela are all on byes) and other team’s again picking up last-minute opponents, 31-6A teams have offered a window into what will separate successful RGV football teams from others during a season defined by uncertainty: a firm commitment to the program’s system and a dominant defense.
“Playing (PSJA High the way we did) and the tradition they’ve had over there for the past few years, that was big for us,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to continue to try to carry some of that momentum forward.”