La Quinta head coach Dan Armstrong knew full well what he was getting his team into by inviting southern California football powerhouse Villa Park to The Nest Friday night for both teams’ first game of the 2016 season.
An offensive line that would make college running backs cringe. A 6-foot-4 205-pound senior quarterback committed to a Big Ten program. A team itself that easily-handled the CIF semifinal-bound Blackhawks 35-10 a year ago.
“Thanks for the good luck,” he said before the game. “We’re going to need it.”
Though the luck began to matriculate as the second half ticked by, where La Quinta outscored the Spartans 23-14, the clock struck the proverbial midnight for the Blackhawks as a nearly spot-on onside kick attempt rolled out of bounds, the game out of reach with under a minute to go at the eventual final score of 38-23.
It’s what happens when you gain one positive yard in the first half, one more than the Blackhawks’ first down total in the first 24 minutes.
It took just that long for La Quinta’s young starting offensive line that includes two sophomores to get a bearing on how to get a handle on 290-pound nose guards and 275-pound defensive tackles looking to smother La Quinta’s electric trio – Andrew Garcia, Justin Anderson and Benji Cordova.
“That defensive front of theirs is as good as we’ll see all year. We have two sophomores starting up front, and their eyes got really big early on,” Armstrong said.
The La Quinta coach was particularly frustrated with the big plays the Blackhawk defense gave up throughout the game’s 48 minutes, but no play had a bigger bearing than in the first offensive series – the first three-and-out of many – when Cordova came up limp, hobbling off the field to stretch his right hamstring which often gives him trouble.
The senior tailback had seen the end of his night right then and there, one series on offense and one on defense where he made two tackles and forced a three-and-out of Villa Park’s own.
On the next drive, the Blackhawk defense, some probably too young to remember the TV show “Full House”, became well-acquainted with Villa Park’s own John Stamos, a bruising back as big or bigger than some Blackhawk linemen struggling to pull him down. A 37-yard connection with quarterback Nick Sipe set up the Spartan’s lone field goal, and a 29-yard run a few minutes later again put Villa Park square in scoring position.
It was big plays like that, along with 12 other double-digit passing plays from Sipe, including two of his four touchdowns, that made the difference. As big as Villa Park was, they rarely overpowered the Blackhawks in the second half, but their fate had already been written.
“We came out in the second half and played harder and had opportunities, and even then they didn’t drive it running the ball. It was just big plays, blown coverage … a fumbled punt when we started to get momentum,” Armstrong said. “That stuff will kill you. They’re a very good football team. … We won’t play anyone more physical than that, and we showed some sparks.”
After a first half without a completed pass, Garcia began to find a bit of rhythm in the new frame. Short passes of six and five yards early on slipped into tight windows pushed Villa Park’s defensive front seven back a bit, allowing Ricky Vargas, who took the brunt of the load after sophomore running back Derrick Kennedy also left the game with a possible hyper-extended knee, a bit of running room. With both phases of their offense more in-sync, Garcia found more time and more confidence, firing the Blackhawks’ three touchdowns – two to Anderson and one to Alex Leon.
But get Armstrong within two scores of a powerhouse, and he’s going to get greedy. Garcia missed some wide open guys at times and did throw two interceptions. Because the Blackhawks got down big early, Armstrong strayed from putting Anderson under center to toy with their new wildcat package.
Still, the game served a purpose. After the Blackhawks ran roughshod over their scrimmage opponent Esperanza, they got knocked down a peg, but they also showed fight when the going got tough.
“We didn’t quit, and when guys got hurt, young guys stepped in. Our offensive line got better, too,” he said. “This team was a whole different breed of cat, but just like last year our offensive line kept getting better and better. Hopefully, we’ll be in the hunt.”
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Villa Park 38, La Quinta 23
Villa Park 3 21 7 7 — 38
La Quinta 0 0 7 16 — 23
(VP): Firuta 36-yard field goal good (6:16)
(VP) Stamos 2-yard run, PAT good (11:11)
(VP) Sipe 7-yard throw to Phillips, PAT no good (7:46)
(VP) Sipe 5-yard throw to Ramirez-Pratto, 2-point conversion good (4:02)
(VP) Sipe 19-yard throw to Gill, PAT good (7:27)
(LQ) Garcia 16-yard throw to Anderson, PAT good (1:52)
(VP) Sipe 23-yard pass to Ancich, PAT good (11:54)
(LQ) Garcia 21-yard pass to Anderson, 2-point conversion good (8:15)
(LQ) Garcia 18-yard pass to Leon, 2-point conversion good (1:01)
Rushing (Carries-Yds-TD) – Benji Cordova 2-2, Andrew Garcia 8-(-5), Justin Anderson 3-12, Derrick Kennedy 1-3, Ricky Vargas 16-40.
Passing (Comp.-Att.-TD-INT-Yds) – LQ: Andrew Garcia 15-29-3-2-192.
Receiving Rec.-Yds-TD – LQ: Alex Leon 4-47-1, Justin Anderson 8-97-2, Josh Cabrera 2-50, Fred Massie 1-(-2).