GONZALES—The late University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal once said “Ol’ Ugly is better than Ol’ Nuthin’.”
It was not a thing of beauty, but the Navarro Panthers did enough for a 17-16 opening game win Friday night over the Gonzales Apaches.
The Panthers never trailed and rang up 382 rushing yards while their defense held Gonzales to just over 200 total yards. But they also could not shake the scrappy Apaches until they were finally able to run out the clock.
Navarro head coach Rod Blount said he will take the win but he sees much that needs correcting.
“We pride ourselves on our discipline and doing the little things right,” he said. “Tonight we didn’t finish some drives and penalties were a big part of that and we’ll have to fix that. But in the end we were able to execute and get it done.”
The Panthers have won their last four games that were decided by four points or less. Senior linebacker Ethan Thomas said that is “our game.”
“We like close ball games,” he said. “We win close ballgames because we’re able to stay calm in the storm.”
Sophomore Nick Billings started at quarterback for the Panthers but split time at the position with junior Sam Muniga.
The Panthers coughed up the ball on the fourth play of their first series, giving the Apaches possession at the Navarro 30-yard line.
But the Panthers’ defense held strong, forcing a 41-yard field goal attempt that failed to connect.
Navarro tried to answer offensively on their next drive. But on a third-and-five, they shot themselves in the foot with two consecutive false start penalties and were not able to convert on third or fourth down.
They did score on their next series, marching 50 yards in eleven plays before the drive stalled at the Gonzales five-yard line. Kicker Sebastian Sneed then hit a 22-yard field goal to put them on the board with 4:49 left in the first half.
Billings, playing defensive back, would pick off an Apache pass less than two minutes later. The Panthers then needed just five plays to drive 61 yards, scoring on an eight-yard carry by running back Euler Deleon.
That extended the Navarro lead to 10-0 at the half.
“That series won the game for us,” Blount said.
Any notion that this would be an easy win for the Panthers ended with Gonzales’ first drive of the second half. On that series, they marched 62 yards in 13 plays and chewed up six-and-a-half minutes to score against a Panther defense that had only surrendered two first downs in the first half.
The Apaches then executed the “swinging gate” on the conversion attempt to cut Navarro’s lead to 10-8.
Gonzales had seized the momentum but it would not last long. All the Panthers’ speedy tailback Johnny Alegria ever needs is to find a crease in the defense and an opponent’s momentum is history.
He found that crease on the first play of the next series, starting left and then cutting back right to open field for a 68-yard touchdown run. Alegria would lead Navarro with 190 rushing yards in the game, followed by Deleon’s 135 yards.
With the Panthers now leading 17-8, each team would embark on a promising drive before each was stymied by a costly penalty. For Navarro, that penalty erased a fourth down conversion and was followed by an interception on their only pass of the night.
The turnover gave Gonzales the ball at the Navarro 39-yard line and they soon faced a fourth-and-11 at the Navarro 29. Apache quarterback Heath Henke scrambled and threaded a pass into double coverage to convert the crucial down. They scored three plays later on another Henke pass.
When Gonzales turned a bobbled snap on the ensuing kick into a pass completion for the two-point conversion, even the heartiest Panthers’ fans had to wonder if it just might be the Apaches’ night.
But Ben Muniga recovered the ensuing onside kick with 4:32 left in the game and the Panthers offense went to work. They got a key third-and-seven conversion on a run by halfback MoMo Sims.
Another penalty followed on the next play. It would soon mean nothing, however, as Deleon broke loose for a 58-yard run to the Gonzales one-yard line.
With just 1:49 remaining and the Apaches out of time outs, Blount recognized that scoring a touchdown was not necessary. It would also have given Gonzales the ball back and kept their hopes alive. So the Panthers took a knee three times and walked away with the win.
The point total was the lowest for Navarro in a season opener since 2004. But a strong performance from the defense, despite some lapses in the second half, made sure it was enough.
“My brothers did their jobs and everybody made plays,” Thomas said of the defense. “We knew their cutback was deadly and we contained it pretty well.
“We did give up some plays in the second half and a lot of that was conditioning. We want to be the best conditioned team in the state and we’ve got to get better at that.”
The Panthers’ next outing will occur next Friday night when they host their cross county rivals, the Marion Bulldogs. The game will be the Panthers’ 2019 Homecoming. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Scot Kibbe is a longtime contributor for the Seguin Gazette. He has covered Panther football for 28 years.