It is one of the biggest rivalry games in this area, if not the biggest and it has been going strong for more than 80 years.
People from all over flock to watch these two teams battle it out in this Red River rivalry, but nobody could have expected the support the Altus Bulldogs would receive this season.
Every parking lot both near and far from Hightower Memorial Stadium was filled to capacity. Every street within several blocks had cars lining it and if there was an empty spot to be found, there would be a long walk that followed.
Inside the stadium people were standing, finding any open spot that could be found just to get a glimpse of their Bulldogs.
Chesapeake Energy Arena is known as “Loud City,” but “The Rock” earned every bit of that nickname Friday night.
And when the Bulldogs took the field to take on the hated Vernon, Texas Lions in this heated rivalry, they did not disappoint.
The Bulldogs’ Tito Jones took the opening kickoff, found the hole and punched it through, taking the football 82 yards for the touchdown before 15 seconds could run off the clock and thus set the tone for Altus’ big night.
The Bulldogs found plenty of success on offense, but the most impressive aspect of their game came on the defensive side of the ball. Head Coach Todd Vargas’ defense has been known to be stingy, but Friday they showed just how stingy they can be.
On Vernon’s first drive of the game, the Bulldogs were unyielding, popping the Lions for a loss each time they snapped the ball, ultimately forcing them to punt with a negative four-yard total.
On the Bulldogs’ next drive, they found themselves facing a fourth-and-four and relying on the always dependable Sha’Quan French to pick up the conversion. French took the ball and broke around the left side of the line, finding his holes and dodging would-be tacklers for a big gain and an even bigger conversion.
It only took a few more plays before a Jake Vargas pitch found sophomore standout Nehemiah McCaskill in stride as he kicked it into high gear and raced to the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown, putting the Bulldogs up 13-0.
The Lions finally got on the board with 7:59 left in the second quarter with a 37-yard field goal, but it was not the ending they were expecting for their drive and the teams would go into halftime with the Lions trailing 13-3.
The Bulldogs had trouble getting things going in the second half, but luckily the defense continued doing what they do best by giving the offense plenty of time to figure things out while they kept Vernon at bay.
French, Jones,Kamron Conchola, Kory Beach, Jazzerick Pitts, and Keegan Shive were all over the field, wreaking havoc on the Lions’ offense and destroying every hope they might have had of turning the game around.
Conchola was especially zeroed in, finding the quarterback often and making him pay for trying to make a play on his watch. When asked about his performance, Conchola grinned but mostly took the opportunity to speak on this team’s defense as a whole.
“I think I ended up with four, maybe five total sacks, but for sure four,” Conchola said. “But our defense has been the biggest part of our team’s success. I think this is one of the strongest defenses we have had in years. We’re fast, we all know our reads and we all know where to fit in. We trust one another and I’m not knocking the offense, but our defense has been spectacular this season.”
And he is right. The defense has done well to limit opposing offenses and this game was no exception. They found ways to get the stops they needed and get their offense back on the field to finish the Lions off in the second half.
But it took a little longer than expected for the Bulldogs. They finally scored as time expired in the third quarter with McCaskill taking an option pitch 26 yards to the end zone to put the Bulldogs up 20-3.
The run was just the type of thing Vargas wanted to see from his sophomore superstar. With the 26-yard touchdown run, McCaskill had big gains and scores on each of his touches in the game, ending his night with two carries for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
Of course, Noah Villarreal refused to let the contest end without getting his chance to shine at his first home game.
With 5:18 left in the game, Villarreal accepted the handoff from Vargas and bulldozed his way to the end zone to cap off his big day in dramatic fashion.
Villarreal’s night ended with 20 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown with Altus’ rushing total for the game coming to 205 yards on 42 carries.
Now the Bulldogs are 2-0 on the season and it is a great place for Vargas and his squad to be.
“We’re excited. Anytime you’re 2-0 you’re happy. The kids played hard and played gritty,” Vargas said. “This is a big game. Both teams are gonna fight. It doesn’t matter who is favored or anything like that. This is a big rivalry and we’re just happy to have the win. Our defense was spectacular. For two weeks in a row, Coach (Matt) Terry and the defensive staff had the perfect game plan, made great calls and the kids played hard.”
Vargas spoke last week about his team having first-game jitters, but he said all-in-all they have worked it out despite their slow start. He credits Vernon’s play calling for some of that.
“We were settled down offensively. Vernon just did some things where they tried to bring a lot of confusion to our reads,” Vargas said. “They mixed it up a lot and did a really good job of that. We have some techniques to work on, but we’ll get it figured out.”
He also spoke last week about the rising star that is Nehemiah McCaskill and although it may have been a pleasant surprise to most, it has not surprised him or the rest of the coaching staff one bit.
“Nehemiah is just Nehemiah. I mean, he gets the ball and if there’s even a little bit of room, he’s going to go do what he does,” Vargas said. “Jake made a great read and he dealt it and Nehemiah got it and we arced the defender and boy he just hit the seam and went and scored.”
Now the Bulldogs have a well-deserved bye week after thumping the Lions 26-3. This team has gone into two games in which they were favored by less than a touchdown in each and have proven the naysayers wrong.
But they cannot be bothered to listen to what some might say about their team. Many thought they lost too many key pieces from last year’s team to be even a fraction as competitive as they were and some thought they might sink into a rebuilding year, but these Bulldogs know exactly who they are.
They know how hard they have worked to get to where they are today and they refuse to let anybody’s opinion of them bring them down.
They are a family and a brotherhood and as long as they continue to believe in themselves and putting it all together on game day. This team is destined to do great things.
The Bulldogs are scheduled to return to Hightower Memorial Stadium to play the Elk City Big Elk at 7 p.m. Sept. 16.
Reach Ryan Lewis at 580-482-1221, ext. 2076.