Saturday afternoon’s Class 6A state championship football game is a showdown between No. 1 and No. 2.
The teams, yes. But also their defenses.
Statistically, Manzano and La Cueva had the two best units in 6A this season. The Monarchs yield just 11.4 points a game, the Bears 14 a game.
In the first meeting between the two, Manzano’s defense pitched a shutout in the first half. La Cueva’s gave up only seven points in the second half.
And both units feel the pinch to show up authoritatively Saturday.
“We know everyone will get their part of the job done,” said Manzano senior middle linebacker Cameron Herrera, the Monarchs’ leading tackler. “We jell together, and we have that chemistry together.”
The performance of the Monarchs’ defense has almost certainly been a surprise. Or has it?
“I think we’re performing at a level we always thought we could be at,” said senior end Deveyion Jackson. “It just took awhile to get here. But we’re unstoppable when we play together as a defense.”
Manzano returned only five starters on that side of the ball, and coach Chad Adcox moved two former skill-position athletes on offense, Dion Samir Morrow and Alex Nash, into the secondary to shore up the one area that had been decimated most by graduation.
“Those two really helped us out,” Adcox said. “And Andrew (Erickson) had to pick up at the other corner.”
Erickson, arguably the team’s most versatile offensive player, leads Manzano in interceptions with four.
But it’s really Manzano’s front seven, led by linebackers Herrera, Noah Baca and Alejandro Vallejos, and the line, led by Jackson, who has 15 tackles for loss — including 7½ sacks — that has sparkled.
To wit: La Cueva rushed for a meager 21 yards in the first matchup on Oct. 6.
“I think we have the best defense,” Adcox said. “I think we proved that in the teams we played outside the district (like Rio Rancho and Las Cruces).”
And in an odd role reversal, it is Manzano’s offense that pays a bizarre penalty for the defense’s largesse.
“It’s great,” a smiling running back Xavier Ivey-Saud said of his team’s defense, “but sometimes I wish they’d take their time, because they put us on the field pretty quick.”
By contrast, La Cueva was always expected to be stout defensively. The Bears returned nine starters, including their leading tackler, Derek Loidolt.
Junior linebacker Fred Mady III and Loidolt are 1-2 in that category this season.
“I think the biggest thing is, we’ve all been playing together since we were sophomores,” said senior safety Hunter Cardiff, one of the more unheralded and yet vital leaders on that veteran La Cueva defense and who has intercepted six passes this season. “When we come into a bigger game, we’re all calm when we play.”
The Bears have been severely tested in the first two playoff rounds, with Eldorado scoring 35 in the quarterfinals, and Cleveland 31 last week in the semis.
And the La Cueva defense struggled in the first half against Manzano two months ago.
“The biggest thing is to make tackles,” said Cardiff. “(In the first half of the last Manzano game), it took us a half to get used to their speed.”
Senior cornerback Aidan Napier of the Bears said it is imperative that La Cueva’s front get pressure on Manzano quarterback Jordan Byrd and try to interrupt the Monarchs’ timing.
“They’re gonna run the ball and run the ball and run the ball,” Napier said. “I think we’re still very confident. We know what we can do.”
The 28 points Manzano scored on La Cueva on Oct. 6 tied for a season low for the Monarchs.
“We’ve got to maintain our gaps on defense,” said Bears coach Brandon Back. “That’s where we had a lot of breakdowns the first game.”
Back said his defense will be prepared in the rematch.
“Defense,” Back said, reciting a variation on what he’s said throughout the season, “is what we do best.”
NOTE: Both teams’ defenses have recorded 35 sacks this season; La Cueva’s Ryan McClain leads both teams with 10 and also has 18 tackles for loss.
Class 6A Final
No. 1 Manzano vs. No. 2 La Cueva
1 p.m., Wilson Stadium
Adults $8, students/seniors/military $5, available at www.nmaa.ticketleap.com or at the stadium on game day. Capacity at Wilson Stadium is 5,800, but standing-room tickets may be made available if needed.