It wasn’t exactly Gila Ridge’s prettiest performance of the season, but the Hawks will take yet another victory.
That’s eight of them now — a school record.
Renan Duarte rushed for 304 yards, Gila Ridge’s defense picked off four first-half passes and the Hawks came away with perhaps a closer-than-expected 34-12 victory over Youngker on Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Though 10 first-half penalties and three total turnovers prevented the Hawks from blowing out a No. 38-ranked Youngker team (2-6 overall) that Yuma High played close just a week ago, all that matters is that Gila Ridge is now 8-0 overall and two wins away from a perfect regular season.
“It feels good,” coach John Ellegood said of win No. 8. “We got over the hump; 7-3 seems to be the speed bump that Gila Ridge sits at, and we got over that hump.”
Gila Ridge had reached seven wins three times prior to this year, but never eight.
Even more impressive: per azfootballarchives.com, this is the first time a Yuma Union High School District football team has ever started a season 8-0.
On this night, Duarte was the story as he was able to put the Hawks on his back in the second half after the offense’s lackluster showing the first two quarters.
Gila Ridge led just 12-0 at halftime after scoring on just two of six first-half possessions, but came out of the locker room intent on feeding Duarte, who carried 13 times for 101 yards in the first half.
In the second half, the Hawks’ star senior running back carried 19 times for 203 yards.
“That was amazing,” Ellegood said. “We told him going into the second half we wanted to get him to 300 (yards), and he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ He kept eating. He wasn’t letting anybody tackle him. It was just awesome to see.”
On the opening possession of the second half, Duarte carried three times for 28 yards, backup quarterback CJ Wiggins hit David Randle for a 32-yard completion, and then Ty Moreno scored on an 8-yard run to cap the 5-play drive.
After Youngker went three-and-out, Gila Ridge put together a 79-yard, 12-play drive that Wiggins capped with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Noriega to make it 26-0. That drive featured eight Duarte carries for 67 yards.
“Our offensive line and defensive line completely dominated them,” Ellegood said. “We ran the same play probably 20 times in the second half. They knew what was coming, and weren’t able to stop it.”
That all came with Wiggins at quarterback, after he replaced third-year starter Kaleb Cota at halftime. Cota went 10-for-17 in the first half for 123 yards and one touchdown (15 yards to Jaden Delorme), but threw two interceptions.
“We just felt like we needed a little spark,” Ellegood said of the quarterback change. “We wanted to see what our backup quarterback could do. Kaleb has been doing good all season and he’s still a good QB. CJ went in there, did his job and executed exactly how we wanted him to.”
Wiggins was only asked to throw six times, but completed four of those attempts for 73 yards and two touchdowns, including a 17-yarder to Randle with 2:31 to play.
That last touchdown put the game away after Youngker had pulled within 26-12 thanks to a pair of touchdown passes by Daniel Armenta to Cody Rennaker.
Rennaker got behind Gila Ridge’s secondary late in the third quarter for a 64-yard score, which was the first sign of life from Youngker’s offense all night.
Prior to that play, Youngker had totaled just 23 yards of offense in nearly three full quarters.
The Roughriders finished the game with 169 yards of offense, 74 of which came on a 12-play fourth-quarter drive that Armenta capped with a 2-yard toss to Rennaker to make it 26-12.
Gila Ridge’s defense was nearly perfect in the first half, aside from penalties. The Hawks had four first-half interceptions — two by Anthony Mejia-Acosta, one each by Christopher Torres and Tyler Faber — and allowed just three first downs, the first of which didn’t come until there was 4:04 left in the second quarter.
All three first downs the Roughriders got in the first half, though, came thanks to or immediately following a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct call on the Hawks’ defense.
In all, Gila Ridge committed 10 first-half penalties — including five offensive holdings, and four personal fouls/unsportsmanlike conducts.
“It was ugly,” Ellegood said of the win. “We’ve definitely got to fix some mistakes for sure. We had way too many mistakes, too many turnovers, but at the end of the day we squeaked out a win.”
At No. 6 in the latest 4A state rankings, Gila Ridge is already almost all but assured of its first state playoffs berth since 2011. But the Hawks can accomplish even more than that, beginning with a 4A Southwest region title if they can win at Estrella Foothills next week.