AZTEC — The Tigers gave 5A Manzano all it could handle for three quarters on Friday night, but the Monarchs were too much for Aztec in the end.
Aztec's defense scored more points than its offense during Friday's homecoming night at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium. The defense gave the Tigers a 7-6 lead going into halftime against the No. 7-ranked team in 5A, but the Aztec offense was held out of the end zone, and Manzano ran away with the game in the fourth quarter to take a 25-7 win.
"We are going to walk away from this loss with a couple very positives. Certainly, that was the play of our defense," said Aztec head coach Matt Steinfeldt. "I felt they played phenomenal during the first half, and, then in the second half, I thought they played well, but offensively we kept them out there way too long."
Manzano's defense held Aztec junior quarterback Marcus Crawford to 10-of-26 passing for just 85 yards and an interception. Crawford had averaged 450 passing yards per game in the previous two contests against Raton and Miyamura.
The Tigers also only rushed for 51 yards in the game, 22 of which came in the final minute on a Crawford run.
"Our run game never got off the ground. We kind of knew that going in," Steinfeldt said. "They were very stout versus the run. They ran a seven-man box. We don't carry any tight ends or anything like that, so that limits what we can do in the run game. A few first downs on the ground certainly would have been helpful in opening up the passing game."
Manzano (4-1) scored the first points of the game with four minutes and 40 seconds left in the first half on a 25-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Brandon Bray to Charles Countee. The play came on a 4th-and-10 situation. Manzano was set up in Aztec territory following a Tigers fumble on a punt return.
But, on Manzano's next possession, a solid Aztec pass rush got to Bray as Jake Harris laid a hit on him that knocked the ball free. The ball fell into the arms of junior linebacker Cole Epley, who ran 46 yards into the end zone for Aztec's only touchdown of the game.
"It was a team effort. Jake Harris came off the end and made a great hit on the quarterback," Epley said. "It was a phenomenal experience. Scoring that touchdown will definitely stick with me forever."
Aztec's defense held Manzano to just 107 yards passing and 49 yards rushing in the first half. Manzano head coach Chad Adcox let Bray air it out 19 times in the first half, but the Monarchs kept the ball on the ground in the second half, throwing it just seven more times.
"In the second half, I committed to the run. In the first half, they were playing off, and I was like, 'God, we can throw it and throw it,' but it was putting us in bad situations," Adcox said. "In the second half, I just said, 'Screw it, we are running the ball.' I challenged the guys at halftime and said we had to run the ball and keep Aztec off the field. That was the plan, and it worked pretty good."
Manzano ran the ball well the entire second half as Corey Morrow took over the game. He marched Manzano down the field during the first drive of the second half. The drive went 68 yards on 11 plays and was capped off on a Countee nine-yard touchdown run. The drive ate up 5:30 of the clock.
Aztec recovered a Manzano fumble late in the third quarter while trailing just 12-7, but a Crawford interception gave the ball right back to the Monarchs.
Morrow ran wild in the fourth quarter, torching the Tigers for two touchdowns and 202 yards in the second half.
"Morrow kept wanting it more and more. Every play, I would ask if he was tired, and he would say, 'No, coach, just give me the ball,'" Adcox said. "Our other playmaker and our starting quarterback were down in this game. Things fell to him, and he did a great job for us."
Steinfeldt said his defense just wore down because of the offense's inability to drive the ball and give them breaks.
"I take the blame on that one. Our guys were out there way too long. They had no encouragement from the offensive side. They put points on the board and gave us turnovers, but we went backwards," Steinfeldt said.
Aztec is now 2-3 this season. A year ago, the Tigers were 1-3 following a loss to Manzano. Aztec still reached the state semifinals and won District 1-4A.
The Tigers will hit the road next week to face Del Norte (3-2).
"I have said this all season long, I know there is a good football team in our locker room. Really, we are in the same scenario as last year," Steinfeldt said. "The schedule we played is frustrating because it puts losses on there early, but we saw what that gave us late in the season last year. We will continue to preach this schedule will make us better come playoff time."