Friday night's game at Golden Valley featured a pair of equally run-heavy, but otherwise completely distinct offenses.
The Highland Scots deployed read options as part of a spread offense, relying heavily on junior running back Adrian Juarez. The Golden Valley Bulldogs distributed the ball to several different backs, keeping the Scots guessing using a flexbone formation.
In the end, the Scots (4-1) proved superior in the trenches, with Juarez and quarterback Jojo Mata combining for 25 carries for 262 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone (excluding one sack). Despite both players exiting briefly with injuries, Highland continued to wear down the Bulldogs' (0-3) beleaguered defense en route to a 40-21 victory.
"I think our line's done a great job of just every week getting better, and you could see their consistency tonight," Scots coach Michael Gutierrez said. "They really took pride in that."
The Bulldogs started strong, with a pair of well-timed deep passes allowing them to match the Scots' first two touchdowns. But Golden Valley, playing just its third game of the season due to COVID-19 cancellations, struggled to maintain this pace throughout the game.
"Along the way, it's been tough keeping these guys focused having to press the reset button over and over," Bulldogs coach James Cain said.
Highland set the tone early with an 11-play, 68-yard drive that took more than half the first quarter, culminating with a read-option keeper by Mata from 13 yards out. The Bulldogs were undeterred. Facing a third and 10 from midfield after a false start, quarterback Kemonte Jackson threw a downfield pass inside of receiver Nick Abbott's route, but Abbott made the adjustment to avoid Scots captain Zephan Stevens, haul in the reception, and sprint for a 50-yard touchdown.
Then Juarez took the first play of the next Highland drive for a 65-yard touchdown. All he needed to do was make one man miss in the backfield, and 12 plays into the game, he had surpassed his yardage total from the Scots' last game against Tehachapi.
The Bulldogs were shakier on their ensuing drive, and Jackson almost got intercepted on an awkward second-and-9 curl route. But on third down, Golden Valley ran a similar play to their touchdown on the opposite side of the field, drawing pass interference. Three plays later, Jackson scored on a quarterback sneak to even the score at 14-14.
At this point in the game, just one quarter in, the Bulldogs' offense ran out of gas as the Scots kept pounding. Mata scored on a 10-yard designed rollout; the Bulldogs punted on their next drive after a fumble by Jackson. Highland stumbled for the first time when Mata was stripped and Juan Olivo recovered, but Golden Valley promptly went four-and-out in Scots territory. Then Highland kept up the heavy dose of Juarez, who ran five times for 30 yards and a touchdown to make it 26-14.
"We knew for four quarters that was going to be tough, to kind of keep the scheme up that we had in mind for this game," Cain said.
Golden Valley did get a spark from Marquiz Burns on its opening drive of the second half. The senior wideout broke three tackles on first and 15 to get 16 yards, then scampered for 37 on a third-down sweep around left end. In between, the Scots were offsides for the fourth time in the game, a key area for improvement for Gutierrez.
"It's making sure that we don't shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties, that we keep hustling to the football and that we don't take plays off," he said.
Larry Allen scored from one yard out for Golden Valley to make the score 26-21. That was as close as the game got. Even after Juarez limped off the field following a 10-yard run on the next drive, backup running back George Venegas took over for Highland, finishing with 58 yards and a touchdown. He even played some quarterback on the Scots' last drive, which culminated in a 7-yard rushing touchdown for Angel Perez to wrap the game up at 40-21.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs failed to earn the same sort of chunk plays on the ground on their second half drives. One was ruined by a 13-yard sack and a 15-yard penalty, leading to a punt in Highland territory. The next, and last of note, featured a dropped screen pass on fourth and 14.
As the Bulldogs seek their first win, Cain emphasized that league play will be a "brand new season," one during which he hopes the team will stay healthy.
"It's an opportunity for us to go on a run," he said.
Golden Valley has one more non-league tuneup against Madera-Torres Friday night. Highland travels to North for its league opener Oct. 1.