By Ray Hamill — Saturday’s season opener for College of the Redwoods was a little closer than it should have been, considering the opportunities the offense left on the field.
But it was comfortable enough in the end thanks to a sensational performance by the team defense.
The CR defense gave up just three first downs from play all afternoon (and two on penalties) and dominated the line of scrimmage on the way to a 21-7 victory over Merced College at the Redwood Bowl.
But with quarterback Max Hough completing a pair of touchdowns passes to receivers Anthony Aguirre and Carson Tucker and running back Emmanuel Igbonogwam adding a three-yard TD run, they did enough to secure a key season-opening win against a quality Merced team.
It was the team defense however, that stole the show, essentially giving up just one big play — a 74-yard TD reception in the third quarter — and relentlessly frustrating the Merced offense from the opening play to the final buzzer.
“The defense was extraordinary at every level,” head coach Jason White said. “Whether you’re talking about the D-line, the linebackers or the secondary, it was probably the best defensive game our kids have played since I’ve been here.”
With the exception of a two-play drive to close out the first half, the Blue Devils had 16 possessions for the game, with nine of them resulting in three-and-outs and four ending on interceptions.
Sophomore Tyse Whigham set the tone along the line, while linebackers Tanner Forkner and Chase Steubing made several big plays and three different DBs had interceptions — two by OJ Mosley and one each by Jack Hartman and Mason Priddy.
“Defensively, you could talk about all 11 guys honestly,” White said. “Tyse Whigham, was a wrecking crew and might have been the player of the game. Mason Priddy had three or four pass deflections, the linebackers flew around. It was a complete defense, and that’s a great thing to have.”
Check out Anthony Aguirre’s TD catch above …
The offense had plenty of bright spots too, despite its struggles.
Hough completed 18 of 29 passes for 225 yards, no interceptions and the two TDs, although the Corsairs only ran for 49 yards on 27 carries — an average of just 1.8 — against a very good Merced defensive front.
Igbonogwam had 26 yards rushing on 12 carries and Del Norte graduate Levi Cox-Cooley had 22 yards on six carries.
“Offensively we were inconsistent. We left a lot of points on the field,” White said. “We dropped a couple of catches that would have been touchdowns. We had unforced fumbles.
“Fortunately, we can clean those things up.”
White added “it was a little bit of playing with hesitation and we’ve got to make sure there’s no doubt.”
The Corsairs broke the deadlock on their third possession of the game, marching 57 yards and scoring on a well-placed 17-yard pass from Hough to Aguirre in the corner of the end zone.
“He’s a big target,” White said of the freshman from Ferris, Wash., who had 70 yards receiving on four catches.
The Corsairs scored a second TD on their next possession, with Tucker taking a short pass 41 yards to the end zone.
The 2022 Arcata High graduate, who is a former Humboldt Sports Athlete of the Year, enjoyed a very impressive CR debut after red-shirting at Contra Costa College a year ago.
The slot receiver had a game-high eight receptions for a game-high 112 yards and he could easily have had a second TD but for a dropped ball in the end zone.
“He had a great day,” White said of Tucker. “He didn’t find out he was starting until Thursday, but he came through. He broke off that one run and scored and he made some big catches.”
Donte Hurt also impressed at times and finished with three catches for 46 yards, while former Hoopa Warrior Carlos Aguilar had one reception for four yards in his CR debut.
Defensively, Eureka’s Daniel Garcia-Hall, Ferndale’s Lane Branstetter, McKinleyville’s Che Jimenez, Del Norte’s Bryson Price and former McKinleyville and St. Bernard’s player Dominic Kofi each also were in on tackles.
The Corsairs travel to play San Jose next week, before returning to the Redwood Bowl in two weeks to host West Hills.