McALLEN — McAllen Memorial running back Andrew Salinas looked like a man on a mission in the backfield Thursday night at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The Mustangs senior lined up at the back of an I-formation set with his team ahead by three points with just over 3 minutes left to play. Salinas took a pitch and bounced to the outside, tiptoeing down the sideline before bowling over one PSJA North defender, spinning past another and falling forward across the goal line and into the end zone.

The diving play was Salinas’ third rushing touchdown of the night and served as the decisive score in a 28-19 victory for McAllen Memorial over PSJA North in a game that began as a defensive duel and ended in a back-and-forth, fourth-quarter shootout that should be remembered as one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most competitive high school football games of 2020 to date.

“We’ve really grown as a team,” McAllen Memorial head football coach Bill Littleton said. “ We made too many little mistakes in the first half like illegal procedures and little things that aren’t us. We’ve got to clean that stuff up, but we’re getting better and the kids played hard. The defense played great against the run and we had some big plays in the secondary there toward the end. It was a good overall team performance.

“We ran the ball well tonight and we did the fundamental things that you have to do to be a good football team.”

“We really couldn’t get into too much of an (offensive rhythm) and we threw the ball a lot tonight,” PSJA North head football coach Marcus Kaufmann said. “I don’t know if we ran for many yards, but it felt like we were throwing it all over the field. Memorial is real strong upfront and real physical, so it was tough to run the ball on them. We had to run a lot more misdirection than we’re used to.”

McAllen Memorial defender Jalen Muhammad (33) collars PSJA North Yahir Gallegos (15) during the first half of a high school football game at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

Despite Salinas’ epic night on the ground for McAllen Memorial (2-1, 1-0), though, it was PSJA North (2-2, 2-0) that struck first on a 1-yard touchdown run by athlete Jack Lugo, who made a number of big plays for the Raiders throughout the night at receiver and out of the backfield.

That spotted the Raiders an early 7-0 advantage, but Memorial answered back with a pair of rushing touchdowns from Salinas. The Mustangs’ featured back scored on a pair of short runs inside the PSJA North 5-yard line to give his team a 12-7 edge with about 2 minutes until halftime.

McAllen Memorial’s first-half lead could have been even larger too with the Salinas and junior running backs Max Alaniz and Ethan Garcia were carrying the ball, but the PSJA North played timely situational defense to limit the early damage.

The Raiders forced a fumble and recovered by Oscar Garcia when backed up into their own red zone in the second quarter, which enabled them to tack on a short field goal as time expired in the second quarter after the Mustangs earned a similar goal-line stop.

“Defensively we’re doing a whole bunch of things and making a lot of strides,” Kaufmann said. “We’re really young there too, and we’re doing a great job of growing up on the fly. This was a great test when we were able to put them on the schedule and it was fun for us because it’s always fun playing against Bill (Littleton).”

McAllen Memorial Marcos De La Cruz (3) drags a PSJA North defender Oscar Garcia (33) during the first half of a high school football game at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

The Mustangs and Raiders traded field goals to start the second half, mainly because defense was taking center stage.

PSJA North linebacker Micah Lopez was blowing up the Mustangs’ rushers between the tackles and junior safety Christian “Cookie” Ramirez had big contributions in the Raiders’ run defense and return game that helped them control field possession for chunks of the night.

On the opposite sideline, senior linebacker Christian Sanchez and junior defensive tackle Marcos De Ochoa played big roles in slowing down District 31-6A’s two leading rushers: Aparicio and PSJA North junior running back Isaac Gonzalez, who combined to carry their team offensively in the second half.

Aparicio was brilliant down the stretch, making plays with his arm and legs at crucial moments repeatedly. He converted several must-have third and fourth-down conversion attempts to prolong drives and the game in crunch time.

“Every single night he’s getting better and he’s showing it in every single game,” Kaufmann said of Aparicio. “He’s getting comfortable with what we’re doing and, you can tell, now he’s playing with some confidence. He’s making some plays out there and he’s going to be a good complement to Isaac (Gonzalez). We’ve been taking positive strides forward every ball game. This week was good for us and next week will be for us as well.”

When the Mustangs took away the run, Aparicio went over the top connecting with Lugo and junior receiver Zach Gonzalez for four passes or 30 yards or more into tight coverage, typically on third-and-long scenarios.

His play of the night was a 30-yard heave to the back corner of the end zone off his back foot while being chased out of the pocket. Fellow PSJA North freshman wideout Isaac Willingham came down with it near the back-left pylon to bring the Raiders back to within a score.

PSJA North Isaac Gonzalez (21) high jumps McAllen Memorial defender Arturo Lozano (21) during the first half of a high school football game at McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected]

But on the ensuing Raiders’ drive, Memorial defenders swarmed Aparicio in the pocket and helped turn the ball back over to the Mustangs’ vaunted rushing attack which took command.

Salinas busted loose for his third touchdown of the night and receiver Marcos De La Cruz busted free for two big end-around reverse runs, one of which led to a 25-yard touchdown run and the other to the first down pickup that sealed the Mustangs’ nine-point victory.

“When you run the football and play hard, good things are going to happen for you as long as you keep your head up,” Littleton said. “Our offensive line did a good job overall, but we can still get better and we’re not where we want to be yet. We’ve got to get better at communication, but I thought they did a good job and so did our quarterback, getting us out of some bad plays.”

PSJA North will return to action for another non-district game, its third of the season, against the Donna North Chiefs with kickoff set for 7 p.m. Thursday in Donna, while McAllen Memorial will take on District 16-5A DI foe La Joya Palmview in its next contest at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 in McAllen.

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Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch