Senior wide receiver Luke Crawford (5) hauls in the Royals' only touchdown of the night. He ended with seven catches. (Lily Chubb / Noozhawk Photo)

Defending co-Channel League champion Rio Mesa flexed its muscles in Friday’s league opener against San Marcos.

The Spartans took down the Royals by a score of 46-7 at Warkentin Stadium to begin Channel League play.

However, the entirety of the matchup wasn’t as one-sided as the final tally shows.

After Rio Mesa got on the board first on a 35-yard touchdown pass from quarterback JJ Bittner to Chance Harrison, the Royals offense put together a solid nine-play drive against the strong Spartan defense.

The drive ended with San Marcos quarterback Danny Diaz floating a 19-yard touchdown pass to Luke Crawford, who left his defender in the dust on a stop-and-go route. With the extra point, the game was tied at 7-7 with 2:54 to go in the first.

Crawford tallied seven catches for 66 yards and the touchdown on Friday.

The two squads then traded punts until there were seven minutes left in the half when the Spartans forced a fumble and gained possession in San Marcos territory.

The Royals’ defense kept Rio Mesa in check in the first half. (Lily Chubb / Noozhawk Photo)

The Rio Mesa offense capitalized on the turnover quickly, as a 28-yard pitch and catch brought the ball inside the Royals 10-yard line and Spartan running back J’lin Wingo punched it in from 7 yards out. After a missed extra point, Rio Mesa had a 13-7 lead with 6:51 left in the half.

“We played really well in the first half,” San Marcos head coach Ralph Molina said. “The offensive line worked hard and we were moving them, and defensively we bent a little bit but didn’t break.

“We kept it close and that’s what I was hoping for.”

Before both teams headed into the locker room, Diaz and Bittner each threw interceptions but neither opposing offense could take advantage.

The Spartans had the ball coming out of the half and maintained momentum, capping off a 12-play drive with a 2-yard rushing touchdown by Isaiah Bautista to go up 20-7. From that point on, the game was all Rio Mesa.

“It seemed like we checked out at that point,” Molina said of his team in the second half. “We checked out in a bad way… We fell apart.”

Following a San Marcos punt, the Rio Mesa offense kept its foot on the gas pedal with a drive that included four plays of 12 or more yards, including a 13-yard touchdown run by Bittner, bringing the lead to 26-7 with 3:35 left in the third quarter.

Bittner completed 15 of 24 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. He ran for 70 yards and a score as well.

The Royals offense couldn’t get anything going in the second half, as the Spartan defensive line unit put plenty of pressure on Diaz and San Marcos.

With 6:37 remaining in the game, Bautista found the endzone for the second time for Rio Mesa, expanding the advantage to 33-7.

Bautista ended the game with seven carries for 58 yards to go along with his two touchdowns.

On the first play of the next drive, the Spartans forced yet another fumble and turned it into an eventual touchdown as Wingo snuck in for his second of the night with 4:02 left.

“We’ve got to hold onto the football, it kills us and it really killed us tonight,” Molina said.

Wingo was the leading rusher for Rio Mesa, taking 21 carries for 109 yards and two scores. He also added four catches for 19 yards.

With the score now at 40-7, the Royals had one more drive to end a forgetful night with a touchdown. 

Just one yard away at the goal line, San Marcos fumbled for the third time, and Spartan defensive end Dom Jones recovered the ball and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown, cementing the 46-7 win. 

“They’ve got a good football team, you can’t give them the ball as much as we did,” Molina said. “A good team like that is going to make you pay.”

San Marcos quarterback Danny Diaz (4) awaits the snap in Friday’s league-opening loss. (Lily Chubb / Noozhawk Photo)

Despite the loss, Molina believes that his San Marcos squad flashed the ability to compete with the best of the best in the Channel League.

“I’ve been telling these guys that we can play with anybody and I believe that,” Molina said. “We’ve got the size and the guys on defense that can get at it, and they showed that in the first half.

“We just have to play four quarters and come out and finish in the second half.”

He also sees this as an opportunity to improve heading into the Big Game next Friday.

“The great thing is that we’re going to learn from this,” Molina said. “If we want to be good we’ve got to learn from this and move on, and we will.”

The Royals will face off against the Dons next week in a rivalry matchup at Peabody Stadium on Friday.

“We’ll bounce back, we’ve got a huge rivalry game this week,” Molina said. “Our goal is simple: we want to be a playoff team… we’re not going to give up on that.”

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