Photo Courtesy Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Cole Goodman gets tackled by a couple of Roughriders. Pima came into Safford on Friday night and left victorious, 34-25.
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – It took only one play from scrimmage for the Safford Bulldogs to improve on their score last year against the Pima Roughriders, but the result was still the same as Pima left Safford victorious 34-25.
Pima head coach Josh Wilkins said with his team lacking the physicality it had last year that this year’s team has to play smarter.
“That’s kind of our goal this year,” Wilkins said. “We just gotta play smarter football. We’re not as athletic as we were last year but we’re definitely smart and the guys can really play football; they understand the game out here.”
Pima and Safford played eight times in the 1930s and 40s but only revived the rivalry in 2021, when Safford left victorious, 23-6. The Roughriders had their revenge the following year, blowing out Safford 41-3 in 2022.
“We’re really excited,” Wilkins said. “We’ll take what happened here – some mistakes were made and we’ll learn from it. But it’s a great catapult for the rest of the season and we’re really excited to see where this will take us.”
Pima’s defense played a key part in turning the game in the Roughriders’ favor as Pima scored its first three touchdowns following or on Safford’s turnovers.
Safford had five turnovers in the pivotal second quarter alone (three INTs and two by downs), with the INTs leading to Pima scores – one a pick-6.
Offensively, Pima finished with 289 total yards (195 rushing, 94 passing). Jeremiah Martinez led the way for Pima with 85 yards rushing, followed by Tuddy Smart with 72. Smart also finished with 8 tackles on defense (5 solo, 3 assisted with 1 for loss) and 2 INTs). (Safford had not posted its statistics for the game to MaxPreps as of this writing.)
Smart also found the end zone on both offense and defense to earn the Gila Herald’s Player of the Game. Afterward, he described his pick-6 return.
“I just read the play good and ended up with the ball and took it back,” Smart said. “I just jumped up to try to tip it but it landed right in my chest, so I took it back.”
Junior quarterback Rhett Hughes made his debut by going 11-19 for 94 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. Hughes handled the spot calmly and well with only a couple of missteps here and there.
For the game, Safford finished with 9 turnovers and 3 punts, and Pima finished with 6 turnovers and 3 punts.
The game couldn’t have started out much better for Safford, who scored on its first play from scrimmage when Jojo Ruelas hit Cole Goodman on a quick slant. Goodman caught the pass in stride and zipped 72 yards for the game’s first score.
The defense helped Pima with its first score when the Roughriders got good field position following a Jaxon John fumble recovery after a Safford completed pass. John returned the fumble into Bulldog territory. And from there, Tuddy Smart did the rest on two runs – the first to bring them into the Red Zone and the second a few plays later to give Pima a 10-yard TD to tie the game at 6-6.
Safford looked to answer back through the air and did so with Ruelas connecting on a deep ball to Goodman at Pima’s 23-yard line. Then on 3rd and 12, Ruelas connected with Cole Yentsch on a 25-yard TD to put Safford back up 13-6 near the end of the first quarter.
Undaunted, Pima battled back with its defense with Jaxon John intercepting Ruelas. Pima picked up a first on the pivotal drive when Hughes pitched to Smart on the option and Tuddy scrambled down the right side for 24 yards.
Martinez finished the drive with a 9-yard TD rush and Pima capitalized on the turnover to take a 14-13 lead after Ryker Shupe hit Hayden Shinkle for a successful 2-point attempt. The Roughriders would not trail again in the game.
When it rains it pours and shortly after Pima retook the lead Tuddy Smart had his pick 6 from his interception at the line of scrimmage.
Smart intercepted Ruelas on the next series as well, leading to a 7-yard TD pass from Hughes to Sam Ray and putting Pima up 27-13.
Safford had one last push before the half aided by a 15-yard late-hit penalty, but the drive fizzled as the time ticked by and Jaxon John deflected a 4th down pass out of the end zone and Pima went into halftime doubling up Safford.
“It took us a little while to knock off some of the rust at first and then we got that going,” Wilkins said. “Once we settled down we knew we were going to be OK.”
Pima received the second-half kickoff and the teams traded punts and turnovers on downs before the Roughriders found themselves knocking on the end zone after another big run by Tuddy Smart to the 4-yard line.
Rhett Hughes added a rushing TD to his passing one and took it in himself from there on a QB sneak as Safford was caught with too many players on the field.
“This line we got is pretty tough and we got three backs – four backs really – that can really hammer the ball, and so when we can hammer the ball up front it really opens up a lot of stuff,” Wilkins said. “That line, they kind of just set the tone and the way Jeremiah, and Tuddy, and Ryker were running today, it really helped out a lot.”
Safford continued to battle throughout the fourth quarter, and Ruelas connected with Chris Shatto on a 30-yard TD pass and a 25-yard TD pass on 4th and 10 to cut Pima’s lead to 25-34. Pima ran out the clock after that and finished the game in victory formation deep in Bulldogs’ territory.
Pima (1-0) will next travel to face the Scottsdale Christian Eagles on Friday, Sept. 1, starting at 7 p.m.
Safford (1-1) will next travel to face the Florence Gophers on Friday, Sept. 1, starting at 7 p.m.
In other local prep football action:
The Thatcher Eagles (1-1) bounced back from an opening-day loss to dismantle the Crimson Rattlers, 40-0. Thatcher will next travel to face the Valley Christian Trojans on Friday, Sept. 1, starting at 7 p.m.
The Morenci Wildcats (2-0) defeated the Round Valley Elks, 24-6. Morenci will next travel to face the Benson Bobcats on Friday, Sept. 1, starting at 7 p.m.
The Willcox Cowboys (0-2) lost a tough one to the Tonopah Valley The Phoenix, 42-45. Willcox will next travel to play Show Low on Friday, Sept. 1, starting at 7 p.m.
The Duncan Wildkats (1-1) defeated the Fort Thomas Apaches (0-2) on Thursday. Duncan next travel to face the San Manuel Miners on Friday, Sept. 1, starting at 7 p.m. The Fort will next travel to face the Superior Panthers on Friday, Sept. 1, starting at 7 p.m.