Tanner Hogue stole the ball from Safford punt returner Chris Garrobo during a pivotal play in the fourth quarter Friday night. It may prove to be a turning point of the Willcox varsity football season in just their third game.
“That play was huge. It took the air out of their sails. You could almost feel it,” said head coach Joe Garcia.
It turned a tenuous 16-10 lead into a 23-10 advantage as Hogue converted the strip of the ball out of the hands of Garrobo into a 15-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Safford’s very next offensive play was a pass interception picked off by RJ Valdez. Hogue then scored again, this time as an offensive running back, and the rout was on toward a shocking 37-10 final decision.
“The kids were excited. Safford is a solid ballclub, they have three times as many kids on their varsity. To beat a team like that should be a big confidence boost for the kids,” said Garcia.
It was a remarkable reversal of momentum from seven days earlier when the Cowboys (2-1) meekly surrendered the Seney-Lohman trophy in a 22-0 loss at Benson.
The running tandem of Hogue and Greg Villarreal virtually disappeared in that loss after showing such promise in a season opening 42-13 win over Walden Grove that featured a combined 303 yards rushing from the duo.
At Benson, they combined for 18 yards on the ground.
Friday they were back, combining for 235 yards rushing.
“It was a chore getting their confidence back this week, but they’re a group that doesn’t like to lose,” said the coach.
They’ll get another challenging assignment at home this week with a visit from Tombstone (2-1) before a remarkably light touch to the schedule the following two weeks at Tanque Verde and San Carlos. They are a combined 0-6 and have been outscored 238-12.
Safford was coming off an impressive 32-13 upset of Douglas and a near miss 29-21 loss at Morenci.
The Bulldogs opened Friday’s game with a pair of 30-yard plays reminiscent of the way Benson opened against the Cowboy defense.
But the Willcox defense stiffened and when Safford bypassed a field goal opportunity, Willcox took over on downs and drove the other way. Unlike the Benson game, the offense was sharp and consistent.
Villarreal charged ahead for six carries and Hogue added four, including three carries of 11 yards or more during the 75-yard drive that featured five first downs, more than their entire output in the Benson game. Quarterback Travis Regalado completed three short passes that kept the momentum moving forward in that drive. But Regalado overthrew a couple of open receivers at the goal line to blow a chance at six points early. However, Willcox did not pass up the field goal opportunity and Regalado used his foot to nail a 34-yarder and an early 3-0 lead.
Safford had an answer, however, thanks to a 57-yard kick-off return that gave them excellent field position deep in Cowboy territory at the 33-yard line. The Bulldogs depth in special teams proved to be their biggest advantage of the night. They also had a 45-yard kick-off return and a 20-yard punt run-back as their return game would cause worry throughout the contest for Willcox.
The Cowboy defense stiffened again after that first long return and Safford humbly went for a field goal opportunity, converting an impressive 35-yarder of their own to tie the game at 3-3.
The Willcox offense went back to work and drove the field 80 yards, this time reaching the end zone on Hogue’s 20-yard run. But the extra point snap was errant and the kick failed, leaving an opening for Safford’s excellent kicking game to seize a lead should a score and extra point opportunity present itself.
It didn’t in the first half, as Willcox held on to a 9-3 advantage in the locker room.
Villarreal had 11 carries for 66 yards by that point, a nice turnaround from the Benson debacle.
“Greg ran with purpose and wasn’t going to be denied. Every time he got the ball he landed forward, even carrying defenders with him. That’s running with determination,” said Garcia.
While fullback Ben Miller had an impressive 20-yard run and Regalado a solid 14-yard pass completion to Damon Dunlap in the first drive of the second half, it was Villarreal who starred in that drive with three carries for 46 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown run.
That 16-3 lead was short lived however, as Safford had a long kick-off return and a long 44-yard touchdown run by Garrobo to make it 16-10 less than a minute later.
When Willcox punted on their next drive and Garrobo broke off a 21-yard run from scrimmage, the 6-point lead looked even more vulnerable. (Garrobo finished with 88 yards rushing, 55 yards pass receiving and 160 return yards)
But the defense held and forced a punt. The Willcox offense continued to stagnate, however, going three and out and punting the ball.
Safford gambled on their next drive and went for it on fourth and three at midfield, coming up short on another fine defensive stand by the Cowboys.
RJ Valdez had 8 tackles, Miller had six tackles including a sack and Daniel Diaz had two sacks.
It was still 16-10 early in the fourth as the Willcox offense lined up to punt for the third consecutive time. Miller nailed a long line drive that Garrobo had to turn and retrieve at his 15-yard line. When he spun around to run, he was met by a trio of Cowboy tacklers, including Hogue. Then it happened. Tanner yanked the ball from Garrobo before the officials could make a stalled momentum call and the Cowboy hero raced the 15 yards to the end zone untouched for the shocking 23-10 lead.
“That was a clear shift in momentum,” said Garcia. “We were spinning our wheels a little. It seemed like we were hanging on and that play changed the momentum.”
As did the next play from scrimmage. After a solid kick-off return from a determined Garrobo, ready to atone for the miscue by reaching the Willcox 46-yard line, Safford quarterback Cloe Claridge compounded the trouble for his team by having his errant pass picked off by Valdez.
Tack on a personal foul, and the Willcox offense had a rare short field to overcome from the Bulldog 25-yard line. Miller helped Willcox overcome a holding call that negated a touchdown run by Villarreal as the fullback bruised his way to the one-yard line after a 19-yard run. Hogue finished the deal with a one-yard score for a 30-10 lead and the rout was on.
Diaz got one of his sacks on the next drive and Safford, in desperation, turned it over on downs at their own 23. Regalado scored 8 plays later on a 5-yard scamper for the final 37-10 margin.
A Villarreal interception ended Safford’s last gasp as the clock ran out.
Villarreal finished on offense with 157 yards rushing, while Hogue added 78, and Regalado pitched in 47 yards of passing.
“The kids didn’t like the feeling of losing last week,” said the coach. “So we said let’s do something about it, and they did. We got back to the basics, blocking and tackling.”
The assignment against Tombstone this week will be daunting as well. The Yellowjackets are well coached, have revived their program to a competitive status, and will be looking for revenge after a wild 35-34 last-second loss to Willcox last year.
“They have speed, they‘re a fast team and bring back a decent amount from last year. They have a nice balance on offense,” said Garcia.
“We don’t want to have a letdown. We have to take them one week at a time. This is an important one.”