When Gonzaga kicked off its football season last month, Eagles coach Randy Trivers told The Current that his young team had a very high ceiling with a lot of potential.
On Saturday afternoon, the Eagles showed just how high they could soar. They drubbed one of their biggest rivals, Georgetown Prep, 40-0 in the 15th annual Jesuit Gridiron Classic.
“This is a huge game, not just for me but our school and our entire Gonzaga community,” said Eagles senior running back Jason Labbe. “It’s one of the things I tried to stress to our young team as a captain. A lot of these guys hadn’t played in this game. I had to tell them this wasn’t just about football. I wanted to make sure we were prepared.”
The rivalry between the schools dates back to the late 1800s. Since the creation of the annual showcase game, the proceeds from the gate have gone directly to support the students of the Washington Jesuit Academy, a tuition-free middle school for boys from the District’s low-income neighborhoods.
Coming into Saturday, the Eagles looked like a young team trying to find its way after graduating a slew of talented players at skill positions, including quarterback, running back and wideout. The Eagles flashed their potential in a 38-0 opener at Gilman, but were quickly brought back down in a 21-6 defeat to Florida’s Viera. The coach used that loss as a teaching moment for his green squad.
“We have a really young team, and sometimes you have to learn from experience,” Trivers said. “You never like to lose, and it’s not a good thing to lose — I don’t believe in that, but I believe in making a positive out of a negative. We used that experience to hone in on some things.”
It was a message the team took to heart.
“We just really have to trust in our preparation,” said Labbe. “The Viera game was a wake-up call for us. We knew how good we could be and went back to practice and just grinded it out.”
That improvement showed in a gritty 30-6 win in Philadelphia over New Jersey-based Peddie School on Sept. 8.
On Saturday afternoon — on the Eagles’ biggest stage so far this season — Gonzaga even benefited from its players’ youth and inexperience. Without feeling the historical pressure that comes with the Georgetown Prep game, which can leave skilled players faltering, the Eagles didn’t get too hyped up and just focused on playing football.
“I haven’t been in this culture at all,” freshman starting quarterback Caleb Williams said. “This was my first time ever seeing the crowd versus Georgetown Prep. I came out like it was a regular game. I knew what it meant to everybody in D.C., in Gonzaga. I prepared well during the week and helped my team prepare well during the week.”
In Saturday’s win, Williams played with the composure of a seasoned veteran, completing nine of 16 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown while committing no turnovers.
“Right now he is making very good decisions and doing a good job of protecting the football,” said Trivers. “He is making the right decisions. He is staying within himself and executing the offense very well. He is doing a good job of running the show.”
Williams’ go-to targets were senior wide receiver Maguire Dilenge, who had four catches for 58 yards; senior tight end Robby Mangas, who snagged a catch for a 42-yard touchdown; and junior wide receiver Dean Engram, who hauled in two catches for 28 yards and a touchdown.
In the 40-0 dismantling of the Little Hoyas, Williams was supported by a powerful rushing attack led by Labbe’s 12 carries for 61 yards and a touchdown rush. In addition, junior wingback Sam Sweeney and junior runner Lucas Warfield combined to add 14 more carries for 98 yards and three touchdowns.
The Eagles began the rout of the Little Hoyas with an explosive first half, in which junior running back John Marshall took a direct snap 24 yards for a touchdown to seize a quick 7-0 lead. Gonzaga quickly followed it up with a scoring strike from Williams to Engram.
“I knew where I was going by the cornerback,” the quarterback said. “I really liked my matchup, and it was one of our money-making plays.”
The Eagles finished off the first half with Labbe rushing for a score to secure a commanding 21-0 lead. On the Eagles’ first offensive play of the second half, they delivered the knockout blow when the team used a trick play — a behind-the-line pass from Williams to senior wideout Sydney Person, who then threw a 42-yard touchdown to Mangas.
“We are big on our preparation,” said Trivers. “We felt like that was the right time and situation to pull that one. Our guys have done a good job of rehearsing and practicing that deal.”
Grabbing an early advantage on the scoreboard was a strategy the Eagles had hoped for all week to prevent Georgetown Prep from unleashing its vaunted rushing attack. Once Gonzaga’s offense put the team in prime position, the Eagles defense could ground the Little Hoyas’ passing game.
“Defensively we were concerned about their running game,” said Trivers. “They have a potent set of running backs. We were concerned with them running the ball going in. We were hopeful that we could get a lead and do well so we could change the flow of the game.”
Gonzaga now boasts a 3-1 record and will close out nonconference play on Saturday when it hosts Avalon. The Eagles will open Washington Catholic Athletic Conference action on Sept. 29 when they host Bishop McNamara.