It wasn’t the yards, because the SaberCats churned out a season-high 516 of them Thursday night including 276 rushing steps, also a 2019 superlative.
It was just that when a team gets 516 yards, one anticipates it will score more than 28 points. In a 44-28 home loss to Weslaco, Vela was stopped on downs twice in the third quarter, at the 19 and 28 of the Panthers.
That was one of the reasons it was beaten in a district game after 33 straight wins. The other had to with the Panthers, who raced to 437 yards on the night and converted all the chances that this success entailed.
The other stark factor in the loss, which drops Vela to 2-1 in District 31-6A, 5-2 overall, is the fact that a tricky junk defense from Weslaco – a combination of coverages in the back plus high-seated linebackers playing pass first, run second – confounded the Sabes when it mattered most.
They romped up and down the field for much of the game but every time they looked to throw in key situations, it seemed like there were 14 Panthers on the green, most of them in the second and third defensive levels.
So junior A.J. Sotelo had a solid day’s work with 240 yards and two scores. Senior Kevin Rojas was the main beneficiary of that action, catching 10 balls for 174 yards, both career marks for him. Therein lies the rub, because the deep threats that the Sabes make their living with, senior Justin Cantu and sophomore Justin Vega, combined to snare just three balls between them.
Bottom line, Weslaco took away the deep ball and gave the underneath crossing routes to Rojas. And the Panthers sat back in almost a prevent-type D and dared Vela to run its way to the victory. Now, this was almost accomplished, as sophomore P.J. Rivera scooted for a career-best 176 yards and Kevin McKinney chipped in with 78 more.
But when the game was on the line, the Panthers made the stops. The first juncture of note, after a Vela drive that reached the Weslaco 19, ended with a hurried fourth-down-and-1 snap resulting in a pass that was batted down at the line. The second march, also in the third period as noted earlier, died at the 28 when a rushing attempt – the seventh run on a drive of seven plays – was stuffed short at the 28.
Meanwhile, Weslaco (2-0, 5-1), which had begun the second half leading 17-13, put two scores on the board, on the opening drive of the half and then after the second aborted Vela mission deep into purple territory.
At the stage is was a shocker, 31-13 Weslaco, but a resurgent Sabe crew then rolled to two touchdowns, Rivera accounting for all 79 yards on the first drive. Then followed a quick-strike vintage Vela series of three plays that carried 87 yards, Rojas bobble-hauling on a pass over the middle and cruising 52 yards for a 31-28 score at 6:10 of the fourth.
Down 3, the Sabes needed a stop in the worst way and most folks on the home side seemed to intuit that if the defense could come through, the O would definitely go on and win this thing, once and for all.
However, Panther QB Jacob Cavazos, who slithered like a snake and cut like a knife all night to the tune of 380 total yards and four rushing TDs, led his team down again and again, putting two 1-yard sixes on the board inside the final three minutes to make for the final count of 44-28.
Vela takes the bye this week and then is at Donna North Oct. 25, followed by a Rivalry Tilt against EHS Nov. 1 and the finale at Weslaco East Nov. 6. The Sabes, who have now surrendered 176 points in seven games, for an average of 25.1 ppg – after last season’s miserly number of 11.5 in 13 contests – will have to have some help in defending their league title. Weslaco has Donna North, a game at EHS, the biggie against East Nov. 1, and then a date back at Richard R. Flores Stadium Nov. 7 to cap the season versus North. Best bet there is a Wildcat win in the Tinaco Bowl at Bobby Lackey, but don’t count on that.
The sure sign that Vela was having trouble locating the elusive Cavazos: the secondary collected 49 tackles between them, with junior Jaime “Mito” Perez Jr. putting in an absolutely tremendous, hard-hitting shift at safety. If your back four is making that many hits, it is not necessarily a good omen, all things considered.
Conversely, the Sabes, again, did not lack for bursts of offensive potency Thursday, as the yardage totals will attest. But they could not find a way through the assembled trees behind the Weslaco D front on a handful of vital snaps, and it cost them.
Another factor leading to the depressing result was continuing difficulty on special teams, as Vela had a punt blocked early that led to a Weslaco field goal, and later had a fine kickoff return from the indefatigable, bandy-legged Perez nullified by penalty.
All in all, it’s welcome back to the rest of the contending pack for the champs, and now the test of character and resilience will come. This season has been a trial by fire in many ways, and one ponders with ardent interest just how the Blue and Black will respond to what admittedly is some uncharacteristic yet relatively consistent adversity. This sort of psychodrama within the game itself is what makes high school football such a fascinating spectacle, after all.