Kyle Rivas (left) and Kieran Babai (right) take down a Knight ball carrier. The Royals defense dominated in the season opener. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk Photo)

The San Marcos defense flexed its muscles in a season-opening 24-0 win over Knight High School on Friday at Warkentin Stadium.

The Royals (1-0) threw a total of 13 passes, keeping it on the ground behind junior running back Diego Pedroza, who piled up 94 rushing yards on 12 carries. He also found the endzone twice.

“It feels great to get this one,” junior middle linebacker Brody Branstetter said. “We’ve been working all week in practice to accomplish this goal.”

After the Royals received the opening kickoff, junior quarterback Danny Diaz led a methodical drive that included four rushes for senior Joseph Herrera and a 36-yard completion to senior wide receiver Kyle Rivas.

However, inside the 10-yard line, Knight’s Ajay Coronado jumped in front of a pass for an interception that he took back 20 yards with 6:40 remaining in the first quarter.

“We moved the ball, but a little bit of inexperience came out on that throw,” San Marcos head coach Ralph Molina said. “Moving the ball was a good thing, we just have to finish it.”

The San Marcos defense responded right back, forcing a quick three-and-out to give the ball back to the offense.

When the Royals couldn’t find any running room on their next drive, they punted it back to the Hawks. On the third play of the drive, the San Marcos defense forced a fumble that was scooped up by junior Quinn Donnell and returned to the Knight 31-yard line.

“We get after it [on defense],” Molina said. “I’ve been saying from the get-go that I think defensively we’re going to be pretty good.”

Junior running back Kieran Babai fed off the momentum from the turnover and broke free for an 18-yard rush to put the Royals 10 yards away from their first score of the year.

Inside the 10, Diaz handed the ball to Pedroza on three straight plays and the running back found the endzone for the team’s first touchdown to go up 7-0 with 21 seconds left in the first quarter.

Diego Pedroza finds the hole for San Marcos’ first touchdown of the season. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk Photo)

Pedroza took on the lead back role with junior Nate Jones sidelined with an injury. He is expected to return next week, according to Molina.

“I thought Pedroza ran really hard,” Molina said. “With Nate Jones out, it was nice to see him step up into a bigger role.”

After the second quarter started with back-to-back punts from either side, Knight’s offense found a groove for the first time, with sophomore quarterback Josua Suarez completing passes of 14 and 44 yards to senior David Cova.

Knocking on the doorstep at the seven-yard line with 2:10 left in the half, Suarez dropped back and floated a ball to the back of the endzone. San Marcos cornerback Luke Crawford raised up and secured a juggling interception to swing all the momentum back in the Royals’ favor.

That defense turned right into offense yet again, as this time Pedroza broke free for an electric 58-yard rush down the left sideline. The run set up sophomore Rover Ojendis for a 34-yard field goal, and he split the uprights to take a 10-0 San Marcos lead into the half.

Coming out of the locker room, the Royals’ defense kept the turnover party going. This time, Babai read the Knight quarterback from his safety position and jumped a route for an interception on the second play from scrimmage.

“I liked our intensity on defense all game,” Molina said. “I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage and made some big plays.”

The San Marcos offense, however, couldn’t capitalize and was forced to punt it away.

Following another forced three-and-out by the Royals, Molina opted to put senior quarterback Robert Simentales under center for his first action of the season.

Simentales made the most of his opportunity, rushing for 21 yards and completing a six-yard pass in his first drive, which ended in a 12-yard rushing touchdown from Pedroza to go up 17-0 with 5:47 left in the third quarter.

Molina said that the switch to Simentales was planned before the game and that they have specific packages designed for the mobile quarterback.

“Simentales brings a spark to our offense,” Molina said. “It’s something different we can bring to the game… He’s not afraid and he’s a great runner.”

Both sides then traded punts until there were five minutes remaining as the Royals’ defense continued to make plays, including tackles for losses and forced incompletions.

Brody Branstetter (left) and Quinn Donnell (right) lunge at Knight’s David Cova. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk Photo)

With about five minutes left, the San Marcos offense had the ball and control of the game. However, Simentales had one more electric play left inside him. The 5-foot-11 quarterback weaved through the defense for 38 yards before he was finally brought down at the eight-yard line.

Simentales finished what he started, punching in a seven-yard rushing touchdown to go up 24-0 with 2:36 left.

The Royals’ defense put the cherry on top with a forced fumble and a recovery before the offense got into victory formation for the 24-0 win.

In his varsity debut, Diaz went 7-for-12 for 71 yards and added in 22 yards on the ground. Simentales, meanwhile, registered 74 rushing yards and a touchdown on six attempts. He completed his lone pass attempt.

Despite the blowout win, Molina sees plenty of room for improvement on the offensive side of the ball.

“We’ll get better offensively,” Molina said. “We’ve got two new quarterbacks and we made a lot of mistakes, which I expected being that it was our first game.

“We just have to fix them up and we’ll get better.”

Defensively, Branstetter and Babai were flying around the field all night long. However, it was a group effort for the Royals as there was more than one tackler on the majority of plays for them. 

Junior defensive tackle Manny Verdugo and senior Kyle Rivas also had standout games, according to Molina.

In total, the San Marcos defense tallied two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and forced five three-and-outs.

“This win means a lot for the defense,” Branstetter said. “We’ve got that chip on our shoulder and it shows.”

San Marcos will travel to Santa Maria next Friday to take on the Saints at 7 p.m.

“We’re hoping to bring this momentum into Santa Maria next week,” Branstetter said. “That’s a pretty big game for us, they’re one of our slight rivals out of league so we’re excited to go play them.”

Noozhawk sports writer Diego Sandoval can be reached at Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter @NoozhawkSports