For 13 years, the Robertson Cardinals have owned their in-town rivals on the gridiron. It’s not only that the Cardinals have won these games, but for the most part they have been blowouts. From 2009-2019, every regular season meeting between the two programs had been decided by at least 14 points. This year’s edition of the Vegas Bowl, the 60th in the regular season, had much more drama to it. As late as the third quarter, the Dons not only had all of the momentum but had an eight point lead on the scoreboard. Robertson hadn’t scored since early in the second quarter, and it appeared that the Dons were ready to blow the game open and end the losing streak. That is when Cardinals senior quarterback Mathew Gonzales completely took over the game.
It was 20-12 West Las Vegas with about 7:30 left in the third quarter. The Cardinals got the ball back after a third consecutive Dons touchdown drive, one where freshman quarterback CJ Perea found senior running back Damian Gallegos deep down the sideline for a 48-yard touchdown. On the Robertson sideline, you could hear a pin drop. On the Dons sideline it sounded like they could taste their first win since 2008. There was a belief that this was the year.
“Three big plays,” Cardinals head coach Leroy Gonzalez said. “A lot of teams we play don’t throw, but you come to play West and they throw the ball a lot so we had to make some adjustments.”
That was until Mat Gonzales touched the ball. At his own 37 yard line, Gonzales received the snap in a shotgun formation, faked like he was going back to pass, found a crease in the defense, hit the hole and ran away from everyone wearing a white jersey for a 63-yard touchdown run. That moment changed the momentum, possibly changed the outcome of the game, and it was the start of what will be remembered as the Mat Gonzales game. That touchdown run not only shifted the momentum toward the Cardinals, but it seemed to make the entire team hit another level.
“I had to get on my guys a little bit,” Gonzales said. “They scored two touchdowns and took the lead and my guys dropped their head so I had to get on them, West put together a good drive after halftime again so I had to get on them in the huddle again, but it seemed like after that big play the momentum shifted our way, we scored two touchdowns in a row and after that it just stayed going our way.”
In the second quarter and the early part of the third quarter the Dons offense looked unstoppable. Perea was deadly accurate, hitting his receivers in stride and finding them deep down the field, with his favorite target being senior wide receiver Josh Gonzales. Gonzales finished the afternoon with seven catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, torching the Cardinals secondary for much of the game. Gallegos, who usually is most effective in the running game, was ultra-effective as a wideout as well, drawing a pass interference on a deep pass in the first quarter and catching the touchdown, which gave the Dons their biggest lead of the game. The Dons offense hit many big plays, Perea played the best game of his young career, but once the Cardinals took over momentum, they didn’t relinquish it.
“Momentum is a heck of a thing you know,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve seen us all year, everybody knows (Mathew) can run the ball, but he’s a heck of a guy to guard out there.”
Even after the Cardinals rally, the Dons had their opportunities to get back into the game. They forced the Cardinals into third down and long, just needing one more stop to get their offense back on the field with an opportunity to tie or take the lead, but when push came to shove the Dons could not get Gonzales off the field when it mattered. Even when they got a pass rush on him he was able to either bide time and make a play in the passing game or find a lane to run. It reached a point where in the fourth quarter everyone just expected Gonzales to make something spectacular happen, he just made it look routine. There was no doubt about who the ball was going to, but there was seemingly nothing that could be done to stop it. The old adage is that big time players make big time plays in big time games, and Mathew Gonzales did just that, in perhaps the biggest of games; the ‘Vegas Bowl’ of his senior year.
The Cardinals did make adjustments on defense, taking away a matchup that led to several big plays by the Dons early on. Perea and the Dons were still able to find success in spots, but it threw off their rhythm just a little bit, and that was all the Cardinals needed. The Cardinals held Gallegos to just 66 yards rushing on 15 carries, with 26 yards coming on one carry, meaning Gallegos only mustered 2.9 yards per rush outside of his biggest run. The Cardinals wanted to make the Dons one dimensional, and for the most part they were able to by containing Gallegos on the ground. The Dons passing game was highly effective, but without a consistent running game it just was not enough to overcome the Cardinals. It was not because of a lack of effort, the Dons did attempt to get the running game going, but the Cardinals decided they weren’t going to get beat that way.
With the regular season now concluded it’s on to the state playoffs. When the brackets came out Saturday night, the Cardinals earned the No. 3 seed, while the Dons earned the No. 6 seed. With a top-four seed comes a first round bye for the Cardinals. For the Dons, they do not get a week off, but they do get the opportunity to host a playoff game Saturday afternoon when No. 11 Cobre comes to Las Vegas to take on the Dons. Should the Dons win that contest, it would set up a ‘Vegas Bowl’ rematch in the quarterfinals, putting the two teams up against each other at Cardinal Stadium for the second time in three weeks with a shot at the semifinals on the line. Saturday was a great day for the Cardinals, but the Dons are hoping to get one more shot at their archrivals.