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Stifling defense keys Montezuma-Cortez victory over Aztec

Caden Cote takes the ball down the sideline for a Panthers first down Saturday, Aug. 27, against Aztec High School. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
M-CHS shuts down Aztec in home opener

If Week 1 is an indicator, football in Southwest Colorado might be the deepest it’s been in a long time.

Montezuma-Cortez added its name to a list of teams that enjoyed a successful start to the 2022 campaign, smothering the Aztec Tigers in a home-opening 17-8 victory on Saturday night.

Although the score line didn’t flatter the Panthers, M-CHS did spend plenty of time flattening Aztec senior quarterback Marcquis Henry, who spent most of the evening with a chorus of Panthers in his face.

More important, the Panthers displayed a full-team effort in the victory, as more than a couple of dozen Panthers made impact plays to spur the dominant effort. Sophomore Shyoki Knapp and junior Miles Frost might have stuffed the stat sheet, but the Panthers defensive unit as a whole kept a highly explosive Aztec offense at bay for most of the night thanks to aggressive blitz packages and a strong push from the front three in the Panther 3-4 defense.

“These boys are coming into their own,” said Panther third-year head coach Ivan Mack, “and the effort was there for four quarters.”

Isaac Dozal kicks a field goal to take a three-point lead over Aztec Saturday night at Panther Stadium. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Quarterback Jake Blackmer lets go of a pass Saturday night at Panther Stadium on the way to a 17-8 win over Aztec. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Tay Wheat races down the sideline for a Panthers first down. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

The Panthers forced four takeaways, adding several turnovers on downs, and kept the visitors off the scoreboard until midway through the fourth quarter.

“We’ve got some really special players,” added Mack, “and our assistant coaches have been working hard to put these guys in places where they can excel.”

Sophomore Tay Wheat showcased the explosive capacity that put his name on the map in the season opener last year against Aztec – and while a second half injury hampered his effectiveness, the Panthers leaned on an array of other options to move the ball effectively down the field.

Penalties nullified two M-CHS scores in the first half, but the offense looked like they were just a few adjustments away from scoring at will.

M-CHS shut down the first Aztec drive of the night, and overcame one of their three giveaways on the night on a punt return fumble by intercepting Henry just a few plays later to get the ball back.

The Panthers marched down the field, and after one of their nullified TDs kept them out of the end zone, freshman Isaac Dozal brought a new element to the Panthers dynamism, punching through a 21-yard field goal to put M-CHS in front 3-0.

Frost, junior defensive lineman Hunter Goodall, and junior linebacker Dean York punished the Tiger offense, collecting another turnover midway through the second quarter to set the Panthers up near midfield.

“We wanted our offensive and defensive lines to dictate this game,” added Mack. “It was a mentality that we had seen building in practice.”

M-CHS, after the previous heartbreak of seeing two TDs wiped off the board for penalties, finally got one to stand, as senior QB Jake Blackmer connected with Zander Cruzan for a 47-yard strike to build the lead to 10-0.

Starting the second half, M-CHS took its opening possession 65 yards downfield, with Blackmer showcasing his footwork on a 15-yard scamper to build the lead to 17-0.

From there, the defense held its ground, as Knapp and junior Mason Anderson picked off Henry, while sophomore Colby McMillan shut down Aztec's star receiver Tristan McNeal for much of the night.

The Tigers scored their lone touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, but the Panthers played keep-away with the ground game and senior Ryder Higgins to run the clock and see out their first win of the year.

Along with four takeaways, the Panthers collected double-digit sacks, avenging their season-opening loss to the Tigers from 12 months ago.

“This was an important win for us, to help keep the trajectory of the program going in the direction that we're wanting,” added Mack, “and yet while we're happy about the win, we’re not satisfied with the way we made some mistakes that limited us.”

Now, M-CHS looks to hit the road for three straight contests, beginning with a visit to Rifle on Friday, Sept. 2, before they return to the friendly confines of Panther Stadium on Sept. 23 against Ignacio.