With their defense holding the Mohave Thunderbirds offense scoreless for all 48 minutes Friday night, the Flagstaff Eagles (3-0, 1-0 Grand Canyon) pulled out an 18-7 Homecoming victory in the Walkup Skydome.
As penalties added up throughout the night on both sides, it came down to Flagstaff’s ability to control the field position with its defense and special teams. Leading by just five with 8:24 left in the game, Tanner Caputo picked off a pass inside the Eagles’ red zone and Lucas Salcido followed with an 18-yard touchdown run five plays later to take control of the teams' Grand Canyon Region opener.
Salcido cut hard to his left after taking a pitch from quarterback Henry Tagle and slipped through the defense for the touchdown with just 6:20 left on the clock, Flagstaff’s first and only offensive points of the second half.
“Lucas is great in the open field, he can cut like Barry Sanders,” said Eagles co-head coach Paul Wolf. “He can stop, cut and go full speed the other way. Our other backs are pounders, so you can pound them and pound them, and then get him in there and he slips through.”
Finishing with 103 yards on 14 carries, Salcido helped carry the Eagles’ offense in the second half with 78 yards. Totaling about 200 yards of offense for the entire game, Flagstaff struggled to keep drives alive as it faced third-and-longs multiple times due to penalties.
“We just did what we did. We can’t get down on ourselves for stupid mistakes and stupid stuff,” said Salcido, who added he came out of halftime motivated after losing a first-half score to a penalty. “We just have to get back out there, encourage the guy that made the mistake and know he is not going to make it again.”
While Flagstaff’s offense failed to produce as crisp of a game as it would have liked, the team’s defense forced Mohave (1-2, 0-1) into an even worse night.
After Oscar Castruita dropped a punt on the 1-yard line late in the third quarter, Mohave fumbled on its first play of the drive. The Thunderbirds were forced to fall on the ball in the end zone for a safety as Flagstaff pushed its lead to 12-7.
Castruita’s punts consistently pinned Mohave deep throughout the night, setting the Thunderbirds up at their own 20 twice as well as in the shadow of their own goal post. With Castruita making it hard on Mohave to move into Flagstaff’s territory, the Thunderbirds struggled with penalties, too.
Stuck in a third-and-22 after holding and false start penalties, Mohave drew a personal foul to shorten its third-down attempt -- only to false start and move back again. As Mohave threw the ball deep with less than nine minutes remaining, Caputo played the ball perfectly to get the interception in front of the receiver and return it back 20 yards before a pair of personal fouls put the Eagles past the 50.
“He's a sophomore and he's doing a great job,” Wolf said of Castruita. “Our special teams are saving us right now.”
While its kicking game essentially scored five points Friday thanks to the field position before the safety and a first-half field goal, Flagstaff’s kick returns kept the offense out of a similarly precarious situation. Shane Lusk set up Flagstaff at its own 35 or better on multiple occasions, including a long return that led the team’s first touchdown of the game.
“Me and Shane had a long talk this week. I said, 'You just got to get the ball and turn on the speed.' He's a fast kid,” said Wolf, who considered making a change at returner. “He came out smoking tonight, and he did a great job.”
With both offenses struggling with penalties in the first half, neither side could sustain drives. Flagstaff’s biggest play before halftime came with about 20 seconds remaining, as Tagle hung in the pocket to find Xavier Sheffield down the right sideline for a 40-yard gain.
“It gave us momentum,” Wolf said of the play. “We were struggling, we threw that pick 6. We are just hanging in there and the defense is playing pretty well.”
Taking a huge hit on the play, Tagle’s throw erased a holding penalty that nullified a touchdown reception by Salcido one play earlier. While the junior quarterback’s follow-up did not connect for a score, Sheffield’s reception set up Castruita for a 27-yard field goal as time expired to give the Eagles their first lead of the night before opening the second half with the ball.
“I tell you what, every time we would do something it seemed like we would get a flag for it.” Wolf said. “Some stuff was legit, some of our motion stuff and we are going to clean that up. Some of these other penalties, we got called for defensive holding and we are making a tackle.”
Mohave’s run offense, led by William Robinzine and Daniel Madero on the ground, sputtered each time it neared midfield. Its lone first-half points came on a pick 6 for Deven Lobato seven seconds before the first quarter ended.
Lobato tipped Tagle’s pass in the air and came down with the ball before sprinting up the left sideline essentially untouched to give the Thunderbirds the lead.
Two drives later, Flagstaff’s offense would answer to draw the score even at 7-7 with a long punt return by Lusk putting the Eagles inside the Thunderbirds’ 20. After short runs by Tyler Bewley and Josh Thomas, Josh Morrow broke through the middle for a 10-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter.
Morrow finished with 53 yards on 12 carries, and Thomas added six carries for 26 yards as the Eagles opened the season with their first 3-0 record since 2006.
Flagstaff travels to Phoenix to face Cortez next week for another 4A Conference matchup.