The defending 4A state champion Taos Tigers won their season opener at home against the St. Michaels Horsemen on Friday (August 23) at Anaya Field.
It was business as usual for the defending state champs.
Or was it?
The bottom line produced a result that was somewhat expected, but if Friday night's debut of prep football in this end of the state proved anything, it's that more work needs to be done before any longterm conclusions can be drawn.
Hosting its season opener just eight months after winning the Class 4A championship, the Taos football team picked up where it left off with a 33-19 win over St. Michael's at Anaya Field. If you are judging the Tigers on their early returns, go ahead and pencil them in for a repeat.
Looking every bit the budding dynasty some think they are, the Tigers scored on each of their first three possessions and had a fourth touchdown called back before St. Michael's finally erased its goose egg on the scoreboard.
If you are judging the Horsemen on their late-game rally, go ahead and ease those concerns about them being alarmingly smaller on the front lines and surprisingly soft on defense. They made it a two-possession game twice in the second half and the Horsemen had three cracks at making it a one-possession game when the outcome was still in doubt.
"I think we showed some things tonight but, yeah, we've got some areas we need to work on if we're going to get better," St. Michael's head coach Joey Fernandez said.
For instance, timing in the passing game. Horsemen quarterback Lucas Coriz carried his team back into the game with a gutsy performance, passing for 145 yards and a touchdown while rushing for a team-high 95 yards and two more touchdowns. He was, however, just 8-for-24 and finished the first half by misfiring on eight of his final nine attempts.
To be fair, Coriz was under constant pressure. He was sacked twice and picked off three times while being forced to scramble and improvise on the run several times. Coriz's best runs were after being flushed from the pocket.
Still, Fernandez lauded the play of his makeshift line, namely center Austin Pacheco. The 288-pound junior was pressed into service despite limited time in practice and didn't have a single snap become an issue.
"You look at a kid like that and think about how much we asked of some of these kids, kids without the kind of experience you'd like to see against a team like that," Fernandez said. "[Pacheco] might not move around as much as you'd like, but he stayed in there and got the job done. You have to love that."
Down 27-7 at halftime after Taos quarterback Noah Armijo engineered consecutive scoring drives of 70, 79 and 88 yards, St. Michael's rallied in the third quarter with an eight-play drive that included a fake punt. Coriz capped it by hitting Joaquin Armijo with a 12-yard touchdown pass.
The Horsemen had two more cracks to get within a touchdown or less, but each drive stalled. One of them had a Coriz pass to a streaking Kennis Romero inside the Tigers' 5-yard-line slip through his hands after it looked like it may have been deflected by a Taos defensive back.
"We make a few plays here and there and it's a different game," Fernandez said.
Simply put, St. Michael's had no answer for the Taos offense in the first half. Armijo finished with 217 yards passing and one touchdown. The Tigers had four rushing touchdowns and got a game-high 127 yards on the ground from running back Armando Valerio.
Making his first appearance after missing the last two years for what head coach Art Abreu Jr. said were off-field issues, Valerio had 111 of those yards in the first half.
"We're a team that needs to stay focused and not make mental mistakes and tonight I think we made a few of them," Abreu said. "But I like the way we battled them after they started coming back. We responded well to them in the second half, and that's something we really hoped to see."
The Tigers amassed 416 yards of total offense but managed to score just once in the second half. A backbreaking 3-yard run by Valerio with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter gave Taos a 33-13 lead. It came just four plays after the Horsemen uncorked a 12-yard punt that set the Tigers up at the St. Michael's 30-yard line.
Coriz closed out the scoring with a cosmetic 2-yard run on fourth down with just 2 seconds left.
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