Hughson’s big linemen lead the way as Huskies earn chance to defend Section title

In high school football – like at most levels – the players who throw or score touchdowns get a lot of attention. But experienced coaches and savvy fans know it’s often the mostly anonymous big guys on the line who protect the quarterback and open holes for the runners who also are due a fair amount of credit.

The same holds true on defense. The teams whose defensive ends and tackles can control the line of scrimmage and pressure opposing quarterbacks make it easier for linebackers and defensive backs to do their jobs.

Friday night, Hughson’s big guys on both sides of the ball were a lot better than Sutter’s, one of the main reasons Hughson came away with a hard-fought 21-14 road victory in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI semifinals.

The win vaulted the defending champion Huskies (8-3) into the Section finals this Saturday against Bradshaw Christian (9-2), which edged Sonora 22-21 in the other semifinal. Kickoff will be at 3 p.m. at Sacramento City College.

Sutter was seeded No. 1 in the playoff bracket while Hughson was just No. 4, something that didn’t sit well with Hughson’s coaches, players or fans, who felt disrespected despite last year’s success – which included NorCal and State titles in addition to the Section banner. Couple that with Hughson’s loss last spring to Sutter in the baseball playoffs with many of the same players competing on both sides and, let’s just say, Hughson was properly motivated.

“We felt pretty confident,” said Hughson offensive coordinator Phil Tubera.

Much of that confidence came from knowing that Hughson’s offensive line – left tackle Anthony Villarreal, left guard Travis Harkrader, center Carlos Guizar, right guard Edwin Olivo, right tackle Navi Arretche and tight end Max Mankins – were a solid matchup with Sutter’s defensive line, which included 6-foot-2, 240-pound end Auckland Asiata, who already has committed to play football at Fresno State.

“Our offensive line really stepped up to challenge,” Tubera said. “They studied Sutter on film. They did a fantastic job not allowing him (Asiata) to disrupt our passing game. I don’t think he touched our quarterback.”

Even after Hughson was stopped inside the Sutter 5-yard line on its first possession, its line was establishing control, opening holes for running back Alex Villarreal and keeping quarterback Robert McDaniel upright. That finally paid with about six minutes left in the first half, when McDaniel capped an 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass on fourth down to Malakai Sumter.

It was the second fourth down the Huskies converted on the drive. Earlier, David Burns had bulled his way to a first down near midfield, making it by inches.

Sumter’s TD catch gave Hughson a 7-0 lead at halftime – a key advantage with rain predicted for most of the second half. The weather was something Hughson was ready for.

“We prepared with wet ball drills during practice,” Tubera said. “The first half was dry, but in the second half, there was a constant mist. It wasn’t really a downpour; not enough to change the field conditions. It was a little slick, but we felt pretty good being able to execute our running game and passing game.”

Hughson’s defense also was having its way with Sutter’s Wing-T offense. The Huskies were familiar with the formation, having practiced each fall for what rival Escalon runs.

“Our guys prepared,” Tubera said. “I think our secondary was faster than their receiving corps. Our defensive lineman made the correct fits, our linebackers made the correct reads and our DBs rallied to tackles.”

Hughson kept Sutter quarterback Jagger Beck bottled up all night. The 6-foot-6 senior was held to 76 yards passing and just 15 yards rushing. For the game, Hughson’s defense only allowed 214 yards.

The Hughson offensive, meanwhile, leaned on its linemen, who consistently opened up holes for Alex Villarreal, who gashed Sutter’s defense for 160 yards in his best game of the year. Many of those yards came in the second half.

“We ran a lot of wide zone plays,” Tubera said. “We tried to influence defenders to run side to side, which compromises their gap integrity and allows Alex to pick his hole.”

When Sutter keyed on Villarreal late in the third quarter, Hughson took advantage, running an end-around to receiver Larkin Meyer, who scored from 19 yards out to give the Huskies a 14-0 lead.

But Sutter wasn’t done, responding with a long drive of its own to cut Hughson’s margin to 14-7 as the final quarter began.

The teams traded possessions, each stopping the other, before Hughson applied the finishing touch. Again, it was Villarreal running behind his powerful line. His 3-yard TD run with three minutes left put Hughson up 21-7.

Sutter rallied one more time, scoring with about a minute left to make it 21-14, but Hughson’s Valente Soria recovered the onside kick and the Huskies were able to run out the clock to end the game.

That made for a happy 2½-hour bus ride home, which included seeing lightning flash in the sky and the bright blue beam over the Golden One Center in downtown Sacramento signifying a Sacramento Kings basketball victory.

Next up is Bradshaw Christian, which held off Sonora in the other semifinal. The Huskies and Pride have never met in football.

“They play smash-mouth football on offense,” said Tubera, who watched five Bradshaw games on tape with King and the rest of the coaches over the weekend. “They line up and say, ‘You know what’s coming, I know what’s coming, what are you going to do about it?’ This is a very physical team.”

The key, Tubera said, will be Hughson’s big guys on offense and defense winning the battle in the trenches again. Sound familiar?

“We’re going to have to be fundamentally sound,” he said. “Our defensive line will have to do a good job controlling line of scrimmage so our linebackers can make tackles.”

King has said one of Hughson’s goals all season was to be practicing on Thanksgiving Day because that would mean the Huskies were playing for another Section title. So far, so good. Hughson will work out on Thanksgiving morning so the players can enjoy the rest of the day with their families. And then on Friday, the players, coaches and their families will gather at Husky Memorial Stadium in the afternoon for another Thanksgiving meal prepared by the Boosters Club and Lions Club.