MANCOS – On paper, this was slated to be a good game.
It turned out even better.
For the third consecutive season, only one score separated Mancos and Dove Creek, and in a hard-hitting, defensive contest, the Bluejays had just enough offense to edge past Dove Creek, 22-14, at the Soper Sports Complex.
Mancos (6-0, 1-0 Mountain League) entered Friday’s game having recently moved up to No. 1 in the state in the CHSAA coaches poll. Dove Creek (4-2, 1-1 Mountain League) sat as the No. 6-ranked team, thanks to their dominance against eight-man competition in the early part of their schedule, including a 54-6 rout of Norwood in their league opener last week.
Right from the opening kickoff, the night’s intent was clear – punish the opponent. Dove Creek fired the first salvo, stuffing the Bluejays on the game’s opening possession.
On third down, the Bulldog defensive front popped Mancos senior Chase Moore in the backfield, jarring the ball free. Junior Bulldog Kendall Gardner scooped up the loose ball and scampered to the end zone, giving Dove Creek what they thought was an early lead. However, after discussion among the officials, it was determined the Moore had been down prior to the fumble, which nullified the score.
Mancos’ defense responded in kind, pushing Dove Creek senior quarterback Chorbin Cressler and his offense backward on the ensuing two drives, forcing a turnover on downs and a punt.
The game see-sawed between the 20s for most of the first half, as the battle of Dove Creek’s Blane Johnson and Mancos’ Mason Goodwin, a pair of the best linemen in the classification, took center stage.
Midway through the second quarter, still deadlocked in a scoreless battle, Dove Creek finally broke into the red zone. Behind some sizable chunks of yardage from sophomore running back Gage Buffington, the Bulldogs rolled down to the two-yard line. Cressler finished the drive himself, then fired a pass on the two-point conversion to Gardner to give the Bulldogs an 8-0 lead.
Cue the passing game. With Moore struggling to break free for his typical gashing runs, Mancos turned to the air to answer back.
On their first play after the Bulldogs scored, Bluejays junior quarterback Ayden Mathews unleashed a missile down the seam, catching sophomore receiver Kail Wayman in stride for a 41 yard score to cut the deficit to 8-6.
Then, after a stop on defense, the Bluejays took over at their own 37 yard line with two minutes remaining before the intermission. Mathews engineered a masterful drive that churned the ball down to the Dove Creek 1, before capping the drive himself right before the halftime horn with a quarterback plunge.
Suddenly, it was the visitors who carried all the momentum into the locker room, up 14-8.
“We pride ourselves on being a power football team, and they stymied us,” said Mancos head coach Josh Gardner, “but we also have a lot of confidence in our passing game, and Ayden made a couple of really good connections.”
Mancos carried the pressure into their first possession of the second half, thanks in part, to a bit of good fortune.
Mathews went to the air again, this time to Moore, and another well-thrown ball had Moore in behind the defense. Right before Moore crossed the goal line, however, the pursuing defense caught up, and stripped the ball free. In the ensuing scrum for the ball, both Bulldogs and Bluejays scrambled to fall on top of it, but it was Moore who somehow emerged with it in the end zone for a touchdown.
Down 22-8, Dove Creek needed a bolt of lightning to restore their foothold in the contest – and it came just that quickly.
About 75 seconds after falling behind by two scores, the Bulldogs were back on the scoreboard, as Buffington took charge on three big gallops, including a 48 yard score through the heart of the Bluejays defense to cap a 67-yard drive.
With five minutes remaining in the third, and both offenses appearing the catch their stride, it seemed as though the game would turn into a shootout.
The defenses, however, had another say. Dove Creek turned Mancos away after a time-consuming drive at the end of the third quarter resulted in a turnover on downs, and again a few minutes later, holding Mancos to a missed field goal attempt.
It was the Mancos defense that would have the final response, though, shutting down two Bulldog drives in their tracks, as sophomores Cole Dainty-Guilfoyle and Chris Medina had monster games from their linebacker positions, effectively shutting down Cressler for the entire second half.
“We know how good Cressler is,” said Gardner after the game, “we just wanted to focus on trying to keep him from getting outside, and funnel him to the rest of our guys.”
Dove Creek punted the ball with five minutes to go in the game, and never saw it again. Mancos would gain three first downs to eat up the clock, setting off jubilation on the visiting sideline.
“In the face of adversity, our kids really stepped up,” reflected Gardner, “it took a whole team effort to come out of here with a win.”
Mancos has a week off, and a much needed extra bit of rest before they get set for another huge league game, when Sanford visits on Friday, Oct. 15 for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
“We know how tough Sanford will be, so having a bye week couldn’t have come at a better time,” added Gardner, looking ahead to the meeting with the Indians.
Coverage of the colossal clash will be on local radio station, 98.7 KRTZ, and kicks off with the pregame commencing at 6:30 p.m. and kick-off slated for 7 p.m. between the Mountain League powers.
Dove Creek, meanwhile, will continue their home stand, as they get set to take on Soroco in a non-league contest on Friday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.