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Cougars Bend But Don't Break In Win Over Hughson
The final score may have been 20-6 but nothing was settled until the final few minutes of the contest, as Escalon punched in a late score to get some breathing room against the rival Hughson Huskies in Friday night football action.

"Going into the season, we knew that it was going to be a good football game," admitted head coach Mark Loureiro. "It was a real hard fought game, Hughson did a good job in the first half of controlling the ball and the clock, but hats off to our defense, they held them."

Escalon also made some uncharacteristic mistakes that let the Huskies hang around longer than the Cougars and their fans would have liked.

"We had three turnovers, missed a couple kicks, little things that add up," said Loureiro.

By the time the night was over, though, the Cougars had the 20-6 win to improve to 2-0 in league and 7-0 overall.

Starting off the game by receiving the kick - something they're not used to doing - the Cougars made it look like it would be another walk in the park, as Danny Thompson returned the kickoff to the 37-yard line and Jason Diniz scampered in from 63 yards out a play later for the early 6-0 lead. The kick for the point after was no good, but the visiting Cougars were up by six points with 10:49 to go in the first quarter.

Hughson made some headway up the field on their first possession but ultimately had to punt it away, as the teams started trading possessions.

Hughson was driving as the first quarter ended and scored on the first play of the second quarter but the touchdown was called back on an illegal chop block by the Huskies, keeping them off the board.

They ended up punting that one away and quickly got it back, with the Cougars fumbling after a couple of plays from scrimmage. But the Huskies couldn't do anything with it, again punting as the teams started a back and forth contest, with plenty of punts and short possessions. Hughson often stalled its own drives with penalties for illegal procedure and delay of game, but the Cougar defense also had a couple of big stops.

"Defensively, Thomas Martin had a sack and six tackles, Nick Largent had 12 tackles, the defense bent and bent but didn't break," Loureiro said.

Hughson missed a chance to score late in the first half on a pass play broken up in the end zone on a fourth down play from the 8-yard line. Escalon took over and had time to run just a couple of rushing plays before time ran out in the first half, holding just the 6-0 lead.

"We were all real nervous," admitted junior running back and defensive back Jason Diniz. "We knew it was a big game ... our defense stayed strong the whole game and kept our offensive guys fresh."

Diniz said the win makes the final games of the season, against Ripon and Modesto Christian, that much more important as those three battle for two playoff spots available to the TVL.

"We came in here pumped up but then came out a little too flat," added senior Izzy Ruiz, a fullback and inside linebacker. "We just had to finish our plays, come out and give 100 percent all the time."

Ruiz said they made some adjustments at halftime and were ready to go for the third and fourth quarters.

"We had to bounce back from our mistakes," he said. "But we played a lot of defense and got a lot stronger."

Hughson got the ball to start the second half but went three and out, not getting anything going. The Cougars took the punt, which went out of bounds at the 47, and marched down the field, taking advantage of the good starting position. By the end of the drive, Charlie McDonald broke through for a 9-yard run but the kick for the point after by Diniz was blocked, putting the Cougars up 12-0.

Hughson, with time winding down in the third quarter, went for it when they faced a fourth down and one but again the Escalon defense came up huge, stopping them and giving possession to the offense. A big first down catch by Danny Thompson from a pass by quarterback Spencer Franceschetti kept a drive alive and McDonald rushed the ball into position for a field goal attempt with just 30 seconds to go in the third quarter. The attempt was blocked and the Cougars came up empty, missing out on what normally would be a sure 3 points off the foot of Diniz.

As the fourth quarter began, the Cougars were again driving but a fumble recovered by Hughson eventually led to their only touchdown of the night. After a couple of rushing plays and an incomplete pass, the Huskies faced a fourth and 10 at the 28-yard line and went for it, with the next pass caught in the end zone for the touchdown. That made it a 12-6 game with 8:55 to play and the Cougars blocked the point after attempt to keep the Huskies six points away.

A three-minute possession by Escalon on the ensuing kickoff, with a few first down runs, still ended with a punt and Hughson took over with 5:49 to play, plenty of time to get the go ahead score. But the defense caused plenty of problems and the Huskies never got a first down out of the possession, having to punt it away. Escalon took over at the 43 with 4:29 to go.

Runs by Diniz and McDonald set up Izzy Ruiz, who plowed through for the score from 2 yards out with 2:49 to go, giving Escalon a little breathing room at 18-6.

After a false start on the kick pushed them back, the Cougars went for two and Franceschetti provided a huge lead block for Diniz, who got in on the 2-point conversion try for a 20-6 lead.

Hughson hurt themselves with penalties on their next possession and Thompson broke up a pass play on a fourth and 18, giving the ball back to the Cougars with 2:06 to go and they were able to run out the clock, getting out of Hughson with the victory.

"They had to dig down and play and they haven't really had to do that for a while," Loureiro said of his team being pushed to the limit. "There were times they had their back against the wall ... when it was 12-6, they got the stop and then we were able to drive down and score."

Franceschetti and Thompson got high marks for linking up on a couple of key third down conversions to keep drives alive.

But it was a game that had Loureiro, his assistants and the fans holding their collective breath until the end.

"It was in jeopardy," he admitted of the game. "We were in control at 12-0 and all of a sudden it's 12-6 ... we hit those extra points and the field goal and we're not in that position."

Defense, however, was stellar and held the Huskies to just 47 yards in the second half and the final touchdown gave Escalon the cushion it needed.

"We knew they would be tough with the big win they had over Ripon," Thompson admitted of the Huskies, who defeated Ripon in their TVL opener in triple overtime. "They played physical and this was a good test for us, because we've got Modesto Christian and Ripon coming up."

Despite the relatively slim margin of victory, Thompson said he and his teammates still remained confident.

"I don't think we ever got too nervous, it just was a frustrating feeling at times," he said of the Cougars coughing the ball up a few times and giving Hughson too many chances. "They got down in the red zone but our defense made big plays when we had to."

Escalon had 14 first downs to Hughson's five and the Cougars had 310 yards of offense to the 179 for the Huskies. Rushing plays, the Cougars ran 36 times for 279 yards, Hughson 29 for 85. Passing yards, the Cougars completed 2-of-4 attempts for 31 yards and Hughson was 8-for-22 for 94 yards. Escalon had four fumbles and lost three of them, Hughson fumbled once but retained possession. The Cougars were penalized two times for 15 yards, Hughson 10 for 70.

Leading rusher for Escalon was Diniz, 8 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown, with McDonald getting 8 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown, Ruiz 15 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown.

"We spread around the ball a lot," Loureiro said, noting that it was good to get out of town with the win.

They host Riverbank this week, Thursday night, and then hit crunch time with games against Modesto Christian and Ripon to close out the TVL campaign.