PEORIA – The Peoria Panthers used a punishing running attack, three defensive touchdowns and superior roster numbers in beating the Moon Valley Rockets 60-20 Friday night.
Peoria jumped on the scoreboard first. Moon Valley had seemingly forced the Panthers into a three and out on their first possession, but a personal foul on a punt gave Peoria the ball with a first down on their own 45-yard line. Five plays later quarterback Dillon Gragnano hit receiver Darius Aguirre on a pretty 57-yard touchdown strike.
Peoria’s defense got in the act early in the second quarter. Justin Gonzales picked off an Israel Vega pass and returned it 68 yards for a score to put Peoria up 14-0.
But Moon Valley would fight back. Later in the second quarter, Vega hit senior receiver Santana Gomez on a 23-yard touchdown pass which marked the Rockets’ first points of the season.
Moon Valley coach Sam Jacobs then rolled the dice, calling for an on-side kick – and it worked. The Rockets recovered and took over their own 47-yard line. Running back Zac Davis ripped off a 28-yard jaunt to put Moon Valley in business on the Peoria 25. One play later, Davis scored on a 25-yard run. The extra point was no good, but the Rockets were within one.
That’s when Peoria started to flex their muscles, which on this night, was their running game. The Panthers answered with a seven-play, 67-yard scoring drive capped off by Gragnano’s seven-yard run.
More defense followed from Peoria. Sophomore Donovan Yabo picked off a Vega pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown, and just like that, Peoria led 27-13.
From there, Peoria coach Will Babb unleashed running back Ira Rojas on the Rockets. The senior scored three touchdowns in the second half as Peoria (1-1) rolled to the win.
“We’re excited to win and kind of get this going and turn it around a little bit,” Babb said after the game. His Panthers lost their season opener a week ago to Apollo 57-40.
Moon Valley, which has only 34 players on their roster, has several players who play both ways. Several Rockets players were affected by cramping during the course of the game, and in the second half, it became clear that they were gassed.
“They played hard the whole time,” Babb said of Moon Valley (0-2). “I think eventually they just wore down. We have kids that only play one side of the ball for the majority of the game, and they just kind of wore down.”
And the player most responsible for wearing down the Rockets was Rojas. After running back Eli Bealey left the game with a right leg injury late in the first quarter, the Panthers rode Rojas to success. Unofficially, the senior ran for 293 yards on 22 carries.