Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Safford’s Samuel Tobias runs over defenders to score the Bulldogs’ first touchdown on the night. Safford shocked Sabino, 28-6, to capture the 3A South Region Championship on Friday night.
Safford to host playoff game
By Jon Johnson
TUCSON – The scene was reminiscent of an 80s cheesy movie. The rough, upstart, blue-collar, smash-mouth playing team faced the polished, well-established, affluent, finesse team for the regional championship. The underdogs battled tough officiating calls that took points off the board and a hostile environment to burst through with a dominant second half as the Safford Bulldogs (5-0 region, 8-1 conference, 8-2 overall) lay waste to the favored Sabino Sabercats (4-1 region, 5-2 conference, 7-3 overall), 28-6 on Friday night to capture their first regional title in 21 years.
As dominant as the offense has been, the defense has been even more so throughout the year. The Bulldogs have given up only 43 points this season and have scored 334. The only losses have been 7-8 to Snowflake in its opening game and 0-14 to Thatcher in week three.
Safford head coach Eric Hjalmarson gave the credit for the win to the hard play of his team and the excellent coaching from his assistant coaches.
“Coach (Mike) Dorrell and coach (Mike) Alba and myself, all three of us have been head coaches at Safford,” Hjalmarson said. “There’s a deep amount of care and love for the football program at Safford. This would not be possible without other coaches. The other coaches do a great job. We’ve got good kids and a good community, and that’s why I came to Safford and interviewed for the job. I had a pretty good idea that Safford is a place that you can win some football games.”
As a reward for their accomplishment, the Arizona Interscholastic Association gave Safford the No. 7 seed and an opening home playoff game Friday, Nov. 8 against the same Sabino squad, now ranked No. 10.
The Bulldogs played a spectacular game Friday night, both offensively and defensively, with no turnovers, while its defense forced five turnovers by the Sabercats in their eight possessions.
Mason Duros threw the ball effectively and went 4-7 for 78 yards while the Bulldogs amassed 302 more yards on the ground. Its bend-but-don’t-break defense had two successful goal-line stands and stopped Sabino on three out of four 4th down and short situations.
After initially going 3-and-out, and with Sabino driving on its first possession, Safford’s defense stepped up and forced its first turnover as Christian Smith knocked the ball out of Sabino’s Sam Valenzuela’s hands after a catch and Dylan Dorrell dove on it for the Bulldogs.
Safford took advantage of the turnover and moved the ball down the field behind some tough running by Robert White, who was inserted into more plays (along with Eduardo Ogaz) due to CJ Scrivner being suspended for the game due to last week’s ejection.
After Duros held the ball and took it to the 7-yard line, Samuel Tobias scored the first of his three touchdowns on the night as he punched it in on 1st-and-goal with 2:45 left in the opening quarter. Justin Torrio’s kick was pure and the Bulldogs were up early 7-0.
After punts by both teams, the Sabercats came back with good yardage on their jet sweep play, which was pretty much the only successful running play for them on the night. However, they were still very successful in the air, and quarterback AJ Skaggs was poised in the pocket and was picking apart the Safford secondary, especially when targeting his favorite receiver on the night, Diego Armijo.
On 3rd-and-1 from the Bulldogs’ 27, Skaggs dropped back and slung one to Armijo, who tipped the pass to himself and came down with it at the 2-yard-line. Ken Blackman punched it in from there but the extra point missed and Safford was still up 7-6.
The Bulldogs came right back and got into scoring position after a big 34-yard pass from Duros to Tobias put them at 1st-and-goal from the 10.
On 3rd-and-goal from the 1, Duros seemingly snuck the ball in for a TD, but the referee called a false start on Brennon Jurado, who was bobbing up and down ever so slightly before the snap.
So, the Bulldogs went to Tobias on 3rd-and-goal from the 6 and he punched it in for the TD. Not so fast, however, as the Bulldogs were flagged for holding, and the ball was pushed back to the 16.
Duros couldn’t find an open receiver on the following play and was sacked for a loss. Torrio then came in for a 42-yard field goal attempt and his kick was online but fell just a couple of yards short. The Bulldogs then took their 7-6 lead into the locker room for halftime.
A penalty moved the ball 15 yards forward for the second-half kickoff, and the Bulldogs took advantage of the field position and tried an onside kick. Christian Smith recovered the Torrio squib kick, and the Bulldogs stole a possession.
On the very next play, Duros dropped back and shaded to the right, he then turned to his left and with a defender draped all over him through an high-arching pass off his back foot that landed right over the outside shoulder of Torrio, who hauled in the catch to give the Bulldogs a 1st-and-goal from the 3. Tobias hopped into the end zone on the next play and Safford was up 14-6.
“On that play, we drew it up at halftime,” Duros said. “Coach told be half-roll, look backside, throw early, let him run under it and, I mean, it’s coaching. We just respect our coaches so much to where we know what they’re talking about, and I just threw it up because I believe in my teammates.”
The defense then forced a 3-and-out and momentum had clearly swung to Safford’s side. Eduardo Ogaz began tiring the Sabercats’ defenders with his zippy speed and did some hard running for first downs.
It was only a matter of time until the big dog broke loose, and Tobias took a counter up the middle and once he passed the first line of defenders nobody is going to catch him as he raced 40 yards to pay dirt to put Safford up 21-6.
Sabino came back with a 9-plus minute drive behind big throws from Skaggs to Armijo and a sweet, one-handed catch by Michael Masunas to give the Sabercats a first down in the red zone.
However, on 4th-and-1 from the 2-yard line, Skaggs tried a quarterback sneak but ran into Jurado, who put Skaggs on his backside and Sabino came away from its lengthiest drive of the night with zero points.
After a Safford punt, Sabino came back again in the fourth quarter, moving the ball through the air – especially over the middle.
However, Skaggs went to the well one too many times and Safford middle linebacker Dorrell dropped back into coverage and snagged a pass over the middle for an interception to stop the threat.
“All credit goes to coaching,” Dorrell said. “I’ll be honest. I was a little frustrated at the team and myself because we allowed six points on the board in the first half and, usually, that doesn’t happen with us. And we didn’t have that many points. So, coach came in, calmed us down and said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to change a whole lot. So, just go and play ball.’ So, all credit goes to coaching.”
Ogaz then put the nail in the coffin as he shrugged off a tackle and raced two Sabino defenders 55 yards to the end zone and the Bulldogs shocked the Sabercats on Senior Night, 28-6, to capture the 3A South Region title.
The rubber match will be at Safford in the opening round of the state playoffs. Will Safford be able to knock off Sabino twice in two weeks, or will the Sabercats ruin the Bulldogs home game as payback? While Safford will have Scrivner back in action, they might be without the talents of Tobias, who was huge in the win in Tucson. Tobias left the game in the third quarter after being hit by a helmet in the back/hip area and was in obvious considerable pain after the contest. But in Safford, it has always been next man up football, and we will find out on game day how it all shakes out.
UPDATE: According to local reports, Tobias suffered two broken vertebrae and his football season is over.
“We don’t care who we play,” Duros said. “We’re just going to run the ball down their throats and we’re just going to have fun. I love my brothers. I mean, without them none of this would be possible. I love this sport and we’re going to make a run.”