Panthers crush Memorial in last-minute tie-breaker

Weslaco High running back Payton Knaub (15) carries the ball against McAllen Memorial defensive player Michael Pequeño (22) in a area round playoff game at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

BY ANDREW McCULLOCH
STAFF WRITER

McALLEN — With time winding down in the fourth quarter of a pivotal playoff matchup, Weslaco High senior quarterback Jacob Cavazos needed to lead his offense downfield in a hurry.

Cavazos and running back Peyton Knaub chipped away at the McAllen Memorial defense bit by bit to milk to clock and push the ball deep into enemy territory. With seconds remaining, Cavazos took a snap from under center, looked at the receivers to his right and took off through the middle of his offensive line before leaping into the end zone from 13 yards out to break the tie with 44 ticks left on the clock.

“It was a play that we had run quite a bit and it had been giving us positive yards all game,” Weslaco quarterback Jacob Cavazos said. “We kind of just wanted to trust the basics, trust what we do best, and the O-line made a huge hole. It was easy for me to just run through that and jump into the end zone.”

Memorial got the ball back with two timeouts needing to drive 61 yards for a game-tying score. Cavazos fired a pass to tight end Nick Nelson, who lateralled to senior back Campbell Speights for a huge pick up. Lara then hit senior Diego Villarreal on the sideline to push the ball to the Weslaco 22-yard line.

With no timeouts left and 3 seconds to go, the Mustangs lined up in a fivewide set. Lara dropped back in the pocket and heaved a desperation pass into the back-right corner of the end zone toward Nelson and senior wide out Zyan Gregory. The pass sailed into a crowd of Panthers and Mustangs before falling to the ground, as Weslaco High held on edge McAllen Memorial 41-34 in an instant classic area-round playoff game Friday night at Bobby Lackey Stadium.

“We knew they had a great defense and knew their offense was just as strong,” Weslaco senior receiver Jaden Cavazos said. “We knew it was going to be a shootout and it was our job to execute on that final drive.”

“We fought to the bitter end and came up a little short,” McAllen Memorial head coach Bill Littleton said. “They just executed well towards the end there and we just ran out of time. It was going to come down to whoever got the ball last and we got it last, but we had a long field to go and not a whole lot of time. If we had a bit more time, I think we would have gotten it in there.”

From the opening kickoff, the clash between the Mustangs (10-2, 6-1) and Panthers (10-2, 5-1) looked to have all the elements of a thriller that would come down to the final possession of the night.

Jacob and Jaden Cavazos put Weslaco on the board first thanks to a 5-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive of the contest. The duo connected for another score at the start of the fourth quarter, this time on a big 26-yard pass toward the pylon in the frontleft corner of the end zone.

“I’ve been playing ball with this guy wince we were 4 years old. Obviously the chemistry is there,” Jacob Cavazos said of Jaden. “When the game is on the line, I look for this guy because he’s one of our most confident receivers that I throw to and I know he’s going to play for me just like I’m going to play for him.”

The Mustangs’ defense had trouble stoppingWeslaco’s high-powered offensive attack at the start and their offense got off to a bit of a rocky start, too.

But Memorial utilized three big plays to keep pace with the Panthers in the first half. After punting the ball away on the team’s opening drive, Memorial defensive back Justin Chairez forced and recovered a fumble at the Weslaco 15-yard line, which set up running back Fernie Briones to plow in for the first touchdown of the night.

An 80-yard pass from Lara to Gregory on the opening play of a later drive pushed the Mustangs down to the 1-yard line, where Speights walked in for his first touchdown of the night. Speights had another big run during the second quarter to jumpstart a Memorial drive that ended in a Michael Lewis touchdown run.

That trimmed Weslaco’s halftime lead to 20-19. The Panthers, however, were able to collect themselves at the break and make some key adjustments heading into the second half.

“I thought we were a little bit nervous. It took us a little while to adjust on defense to the speed of the game,” Littleton said. “We just never looked real comfortable. We executed some things well, but we just didn’t play as well as we have been playing down the stretch.”

The Panthers came out of the half clicking on all cylinders. In addition to his passing touchdown to Jaden, Jacob Cavazos found the end zone twice on the ground in the second. Weslaco managed to score touchdowns on each of their three secondhalf drives.

“We knew our halftime adjustments were crucial, so we took advantage of what the defense gave us,” Jaden Cavazos said. “The O-line executed, people on the perimeter executed and we were fortunate enough to score every single drive.”

“We stayed in it until the end and we didn’t give up,” Littleton said. “We just kept looking for that one stop or that one turnover, and Weslaco just wouldn’t let it happen.”

The Panthers will move onto the regional semifinals, where they will face the Lake Travis Cavaliers (11-1) on Friday at Alamo Stadium in San Antonio.