Pima dominates Safford in season-opening win

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Wyatt Wiltbank leads a cadre of would-be tacklers. Wiltbank helped lead the Roughriders to a 41-3 trampling of the Safford Bulldogs on Friday night.

By Jon Johnson


Pima had played Safford eight times during the 1930s and 40s, winning once, 6-0 in 1938. However, those weren’t the games on Pima quarterback Seth Russell’s mind when he lined up against the Bulldogs Friday night. No, for Russell, the sour taste of last year’s 23-6 loss at Safford still found a place in his mouth and he yearned to replace it with that of victory.

“To come back and beat them 41-3, that’s – it feels so great,” Russell said after the game.

Russell went 4-12 in the air for 30 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT for a quarterback rating of 35.4. Russell also ran eight times for 20 yards and a TD. 

Defensively, Russell had 11 total tackles (7 solo) to lead the team.

On a cool Friday evening, the Pima Roughriders gave their entry into the discussion regarding a 2A championship contender this year when it handed first-year coach Josh Wilkins an opening day win after thoroughly dismantling 3A Safford in every aspect of the game. Wilkins was gracious in victory.

“I want to hand it to Safford, too, for showing up,” Wilkins said. “They weren’t backing down from nothing and they kept us on our toes a few times. We’re just glad to come away with the win.”  

By the time it was over, some in Safford may say the 41-3 thrashing given by the Pima Roughriders could be the worst loss for the Bulldogs they can think of. But for those down the highway in Pima, it is becoming par for the course.

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald: Pima versus Safford football highlight video.

The Pima defense kept Safford out of the end zone and held them to just 3 points. Safford had trouble with Pima’s speed, the players’ length (multiple passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage), and overall toughness. For the game, the Bulldogs committed seven turnovers and punted four times. Conversely, Pima scored six touchdowns, only turned the ball over three times, and punted twice. They did this despite it being their first game of the season. 

“We were kind of disappointed that we didn’t get to play last week (and) get those first game jitters out,” said Pima head coach Josh Wilkins. “But I felt like we came today – we didn’t have those first game jitters – we just came out, picked up where we left off last year, and were able to pick it up and just play some hard Roughrider football – the way we love it.” 

Along with Wilkins, defensive coordinator Lee Haws is in his first year at Pima but certainly is no stranger to area football.

It was the game’s second turnover that led to Pima’s opening score of the season. 

First, a booming punt by Pierce Ashby reversed the field position. Then, the Pima defense held Safford to a three-and-out. Upon the ensuing punt attempt, kicker Noah Paul couldn’t field a low snap and Tuddy Smart corralled him to set up Pima with a 1st and goal. Pima capitalized a few plays later when Russell ran a bootleg around the left side to pay dirt. The Jaxon John extra-point made it 7-0, Pima. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Seth Russell cleans up in his role as a defensive end.

“Our defense was awesome,” Russell said. “It was just an all-around awesome defense and it was super fun to play.”

After a Safford punt, the Bulldogs’ defense stepped up and Brenden Gunnett got to Russell just as he released a pass. Jojo Ruelas stepped in front of Coy Miller and snagged the INT. Ruelas then looked like he was going to do a pick-6 as he raced down the sideline but Wyatt Wiltbank came from out of frame to catch him just short of the promised land. 

The Roughriders’ defense stiffened up, and after Russell and Smart teamed up on a sack the Bulldogs settled for a 33-yard Paul field goal. With 9:52 left in the second quarter, it would be the first and only points Safford would score. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Kicker Noah Paul scores Safford’s only points on the night.

After that, Pima simply owned the offensive line. The holes through the front line were spacious and plenty, and Pima’s leading blockers did a good job. Over and over again the announcer would say the Safford defensive backs’ names as they made tackles on Pima running plays eight yards downfield.

“I really gotta thank the coaching staff that I have,” coach Wilkins said. “We just put guys in the right spot who knew their assignment and were able to get it done. And when you put the boys in that situation – this group of boys – they’re going to turn it out.”   

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Safford connects on a pass early on in the game.

Pima did have its share of “good” ball bounces, including during its immediate answer to Safford’s offensive success. After Jaxon John gave Pima good field position on the kickoff return, the Roughriders worked the ball into Bulldogs’ territory. Then, after Safford’s Anthony Garrobo made a great strip play on Wiltbank to pop the ball up into the air, Brock Haws plucked it from the heavens and rambled down the sideline to the 1-yard-line. 

Wiltbank then followed his lead blocker Jeremiah Martinez for the TD and did the same for the 2-point conversion to put Pima up 14-3 and have its fans feeling good. Wiltbank led the team in rushing with 67 on 10 carries. As a team, Pima had 164 yards rushing on an average of 4.6 yards per attempt.  

Another punt return from John, set up in part by an incredible block by Sam Ray in which he took out two Safford players, and Pima was knocking on the door of scoring again. Wiltbank then bounced around the outside and was aided by a simply vicious block that Safford head coach Bob Park believed to be against the rules. No flag was thrown, however, and Wiltbank took it down to the 1-yard-line after shrugging off several tackle attempts.

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Seth Russell stiff-arms a tackler on his way down the field.

Russell finished the drive on a 1-yard dive on a broken play and the Roughriders went into the break up 21-3. 

Safford came out fighting in the third quarter and secured a turnover on an onside kick recovery. However, the Bulldogs gave the ball right back when Monster Rios wasn’t able to hold onto the handoff and Sam Ray recovered for Pima. 

Tuddy Smart added to Pima’s touchdown total with a short inside TD run to put the Roughriders up 28-3 with 8:42 left in the third quarter. 

Not long after that the teams were instructed to leave the field due to the proximity of the lightning. The delay lasted about 45 minutes and play resumed around 10 p.m. 

Safford had one last legitimate shot at scoring in the third quarter after it got a short field on Pima’s 25 after Collin Gunnett stripped Russell of the ball and Rios recovered. 

After four consecutive failed passes, it looked to be a turnover but off-setting penalties on 4th down allowed for another shot. The Bulldogs made the most of it and Ruelas hit Chris Shatto over the middle to the 5-yard-line. 

But Safford couldn’t punch it in, and on 4th and goal from the 5, Ruelas handed off to Shatto, who pitched to Rios around the right side. Hayden Blair was there, however, and upended Rios to stop the threat and turn the ball back over to Pima. Safford would not come close to scoring again. 

Russell hit Ashby on a 5-yard quick shot for a TD, and Hayden Blair rounded out the scoring on a 3-yard TD run to push it to 41 – 3. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima celebrates its win over Safford on Friday night.

“It feels great, it’s awesome,” coach Wilkins said. “These boys are just so special to me. They played their hearts out tonight. The senior class – I’ve been with them for over six years now and they’re just special to me, so I’m glad we got this first win and just carry on.” 

Safford will next host another 2A powerhouse in Morenci on Friday, Sept. 2, starting at 7 p.m. 

Pima will get no break and will have an even harder test as the Roughriders visit top-ranked 3A Thatcher on Friday, Sept. 2, starting at 7 p.m. 

“We’re ready to keep moving on with our season and hopefully see how far it can go,” Russell said. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Seth Russell attempts a pass. Russell threw for a TD and ran for one as well.

In other local football action: 

In 3A, Thatcher (2-0) came back from down 21 points to take a lead late against Eastmark, 28-24. However, Eastmark scored to take the lead, 30-28, late in the fourth quarter. 

Thatcher then moved the ball all the way down to the 2-yard line with 10 seconds left and elected to kick the winning field goal on second down. The attempt was blocked, but Thatcher recovered the ball and Eastmark was penalized for excessive celebration for removing their helmets and more. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Jaxon John jukes a Safford defender on a kickoff return.

Since it was only third down, Thatcher once again attempted a game-winning field goal and this time it was successful as time ticked down and the Eagles escaped with a thriller, 31-30. 

In 2A, Morenci (2-0) obliterated the Tanque Verde Hawks, 44-0. The Wildcats will next play at Safford on Friday, Sept. 2, starting at 7 p.m.

In 1A, Duncan (1-1) defeated Fort Thomas (0-2), 50-22.