ABILENE — Ryan defensive coordinator Shane Tolleson said his team heard "through a birdie" that Lubbock Coronado felt as though the Raider linebackers were soft in the days leading up to Saturday's Class 5A Division I Region I final.
The Mustangs were confident in their ability to run the ball, which would have given them the edge offensively next to prolific quarterback Qua Gray.
The only problem was that Ryan didn't play nearly as soft in the middle of its defense as Coronado may have expected.
The Raiders played with an increased intensity and used it to disrupt the Mustangs' offense, leading Ryan to a commanding 69-49 victory. The Mustangs scored 21 points after the outcome was well in hand.
"They had respect for our defensive line but felt they could run the ball," Tolleson said. "We played with a chip. It's the standard here — you play good defense if you want to win a state championship."
After giving up a 69-yard touchdown run on Coronado's opening possession, it didn't take long for one of the Raiders' linebackers to make his presence felt. Senior Kosi Eldridge intercepted a pass that was batted into the air at the line of scrimmage, setting the tone for the rest of the day defensively.
Ryan allowed just 113 yards on 36 rushes after the long touchdown run, and the Mustangs managed just 3.13 yards per carry from that point on.
"Big-time players make big-time plays," Tolleson said. "If you consider yourself a big-time player at Denton Ryan, you're going to make big-time plays in these kinds of games."
The intensity Ryan brought to the table from the get-go allowed the front seven to get into the head of Gray, as the star QB was under consistent pressure from start to finish for the first time this year.
The defensive front, led by Delshun Neal, Anthony Flemings and Rondarius McGarr, was in the backfield wreaking havoc, taking pressure off the secondary and allowing the Raiders to hold a potent passing offense in check for the majority of the day.
After scoring 80 points and accounting for more than 760 yards of offense in a win over Colleyville Heritage last week, Coronado managed just 28 points against the Ryan starters.
The Raiders forced two turnovers and got a score on special teams when Tra Smith returned a kickoff 83 yards just before halftime.
"That's a really good offense we just beat," Ryan coach Dave Henigan said. "The key for us was just to get a couple turnovers and get some stops in the red zone. When we did those defensively, we capitalized by scoring touchdowns."
For the majority of the game, it didn't matter what Coronado did. The Raider defense was there to make a big play and keep its foot on the gas to support a surging offensive attack.
If Ryan wasn't dangerous enough entering next week's state semifinal against Highland Park, the Raiders are now really firing on all cylinders.
"We did what we needed to do to take their will away," Neal said. "They tried to run the ball and they tried to throw the ball — we stopped both. They didn't put up 80 points this game."