LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Leroy Gonzalez’s defensive philosophy is simple: Bend but don’t break.
In truth, the rationale behind the Las Vegas Robertson head football coach’s mantra is based more on rope-a-dope tactics than on pliability. His concept is that if you give a group of teenagers enough plays in a game, mistakes will eventually occur.
And that’s when the Cardinals’ defense will strike.
Robertson bent plenty against the No. 2 Socorro Warriors in a Class 3A semifinal Saturday afternoon at Cardinal Field, but it was the Warriors who broke at key times. The Cardinals forced three turnovers and registered a safety that added insurance in a 38-29 win to ensure their fifth state title game appearance in the last seven years.
Robertson, the third seed in the playoffs, will play No. 4 St. Michael’s at Cardinal Field at 1 p.m. Nov. 27 for the state title.
While Cardinals senior quarterback Matthew Gonzales was his usual brilliant self with 297 yards of total offense and a hand in all five of his team’s touchdowns, the defense more than did its part to let Gonzales and the offense shine. It stemmed from Gonzalez’s long-standing philosophy to prevent opponents from making big plays so that his defense can make them instead.
“We’re gonna rally [to the ball carrier] and we’re gonna tackle,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe we get a tackle for loss and we get a third-and-6.”
That’s when Robertson (10-2) is at its most dangerous. The defense can force fumbles to negate a big play, like when Gonzales did just that to Socorro quarterback Marcus Armijo at the end of a 29-yard run in the first quarter. The loose ball was recovered by teammate Kenneth Montoya at the Robertson 41-yard line, and the Cardinals turned it into a touchdown that gave them a 12-6 lead.
The defense also can yield short gains and first downs, only to extinguish hope with an interception in the end zone that thwarts a potential tying touchdown. Again, Gonzales was front and center for that play in the third quarter as Robertson tried to protect a 20-13 lead. He swooped in to steal a pass aimed for Adadrian Jackson that Estrada tipped into the air.
The play proved to be the turning point as Robertson responded by scoring in two running plays. The second run belonged to Gonzales, who sprinted through the left side, slipped through a would-be tackle at the Socorro 40 then raced untouched into the end zone for a 47-yard touchdown and a 28-13 lead with 2:42 left in the third quarter.
“Defense wins championships,” Gonzales said. “We knew we had to play well defensively. We knew they had good athletes out in space and they had some big guys up front. We knew who their star was [Jackson], so we had to play over top on him.”
It was yet another stellar performance by Gonzales, who ran for 182 yards and touchdown and threw for 116 yards and three touchdowns. He also had two interceptions and forced a fumble on the defensive side.
Gonzales even had a hand on a fifth touchdown, as he fumbled the ball trying to gain more yards on a second-and-23 play from the Socorro 34 early in the second half. The ball bounced forward and was booted by a Robertson player and Socorro cornerback Jordan Armijo before bouncing into the waiting hands of Montoya at the 10. He raced in untouched for a touchdown to open the second half.
When Gonzales hit his freshman brother, Jesse James Gonzales, for the 2-point pass, Robertson led 20-13 at the 8:43 mark. “I was chasing it and then [Jordan Armijo] jumped on it and one our guys pushed him and the ball came back out,” Gonzales said. “Ken was in the right place at the right time.”
Contreras also had impeccable timing, as he was the recipient of all three scoring passes. His third score came from 24 yards out as Gonzales hit the 6-foot-2 sophomore in between two Socorro defenders to give Robertson a 36-21 lead with 11:43 left in the game.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals defense stiffened against the Warriors’ ground game. After surrendering 120 rushing yards in the first half, Robertson held them to just 17 yards until Socorro (10-2) managed 54 on the final drive.
The Cardinals defense even scored, as tackle Bodie Schlinger tackled Marcus Armijo in the end zone for a safety to make it 38-21 with 8:20 left.
Overall, Socorro had 236 yards of offense in the first half as it built a 13-12 lead. The Warriors managed 200 yards in the second half, but 80 came on the final drive to cut the lead to 38-29. Also, Robertson had a miscue in the defensive backfield when Matthew Gonzales and Estrada both went to interception a Marcus Armijo pass that ended up in the arms of Alex Amaro for a 65-yard touchdown pass with 1:29 left in the third quarter to cut the Cardinals lead to 28-21.
Socorro had just 17 rushing yards until its final drive. Robertson junior linebacker Ace Gonzalez, the son of coach Gonzalez, said the defense improved its communication in the second half and took away many of the sweeps the Warriors used to gain yardage in the first half. It forced Marcus Armijo to throw the ball more, and he completed seven of 17 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns after the half. However, he had two interceptions that halted drives.
“We were in the wrong spots [in the first half],” Ace Gonzalez said. “We settled down and played our game. We started playing the Cardinal way.”
And the Cardinal way is giving teams hope before stealing it with burglar-like timing. In its wake are broken hearts and shattered dreams.