by Christopher Mohr
October 11th, 2010 (San Diego) - Friday night's (10/8) high school football game between the Santana Sultans and San Diego Madison Warhawks at Mira Mesa High School was one of the more competitive matchups in the San Diego Section. On several occasions, it seemed as though the Warhawks' team speed would allow them to take control of the game. However, the hard nosed Sultans' defense came up with big plays to keep the game close. Unfortunately their effort was not enough to keep Madison from escaping with a 23-21 win.
The Warhawks' first drive was a sign of how much of the game would play out. After big runs of 11 and 16 yards by Jeremy Hutchison and Desaan Hardwick respectively, they seemed well on their way to taking an early lead, but Sultans' defender had Jonathan Butler had other ideas. He sacked Madison quarterback Chad Knox for a seven yard loss on fourth down to end what initially was an impressive drive for the Warhawks.
The Sultans failed to take advantage of the opportunity that Butler's sack provided. After advancing to the Warhawks' 30-yard line, their drive ended with a botched field goal attempt that led to an imcomplete pass, thus allowing Madison to gain possession on downs.
Hardwick, who ran for a total of 129 yards on 18 carries, put the Warhawks on the board first with a 23 yard run in the first quarter. He accounted for 31 of the team's 70 yards on the drive, which only took six plays.
Big plays were integral to the Warhawks' win. Out of a total of 62 offensive plays, 16 plays went for 10 yards or more.
Also integral to the Warhawks' win was the poor field position that they often gave Santana. All five kickoffs and one punt by Mitchell Esser went for touchbacks, effectively taking the kick return game away from the Sultans. This was a huge factor considering the big play capability of Zach Breidt, who returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown in the Sultans' season opener against West Hills.
Although the Sultans' passing attack struggled throughout the game, it allowed them to tie the score in the second quarter. Kyle Gasner connected with Spencer Love on a screen pass that went for 17 yards and hit Landon Lozoya twice on the drive, once for a huge play of 37 yards, and again on a nine yard touchdown play that tied the game, 7-7.
Madison responded with another drive dominated by big plays. They only needed six plays to cover 75 yards to move ahead 14-7 midway in the second quarter. Knox lofted a touch pass to Hutchison from 17 yards to give the Warhawks the lead before halftime. Four of the six plays on the drive covered 10 yards or more.
It's not possible to know exactly what Santana head coach Dave Gross said to his players at halftime without having been there, but in all likelihood, he must have stressed the importance of his team beginning the second half with a sense of urgency. If that's the case, then the Sultans definitely took the message to heart, although it wasn't immediately evident.
That's because the Sultans' first drive ended with a potentially discouraging four-and-out, definitely not the outcome that Santana needed to keep pace with the Warhawks.
The Sultans' defense was unfazed by the offense's bad start to the second half and gave them back the ball. On Madison's first play in the second half, Santana's Wesley Green recovered a fumble by Hardwick on Madison's 45-yard line. It allowed Santana a rare drive start with excellent field position.
Six plays later, Gasner hit the aptly-named T.D. Gross on a pass play that covered 32 yards for a game tying touchdown. Much of the yardage came after the catch as the 6'6", 235 pound tight end went only a few yards deep before he found an opening in the Warhawks' pass defense, caught the pass and lumbered into the end zone the rest of the way. The scoring play tied the game, 14-14.
The Sultans' defense did a good job of slowing down the Warhawks' offense over the next few possessions, limiting them to only a field goal in the third quarter. It appeared that momentum favored Santana even though they trailed 17-14. The defense did its job to keep the game close, now all they needed was a big play from the offense.
Unfortunately for the Sultans, it was Madison's defense that came up with the next big play. Early in the fourth quarter, Hutchison intercepted a pass from Gasner that he returned 33 yards for a touchdown. Esser's point-after attempt failed, but the Warhawks led 23-14 and the Sultans would need two possessions to win the game.
"I had seen the receiver cross and I jumped it, took it to the house," Hutchison said about his game breaking interception.
The Sultans' offense responded with a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Gasner connected with Breidt on a 13 yard pass play that closed the deficit to two points with Santana trailing 23-21. The big play on the drive was a pass from Gasner to Eligio Acero that covered 38 yards.
Madison's offense sought to eat up some time off the clock on their next drive. The strategy worked for the most part as the Warhawks consumed over five minutes, but the Sultans recovered a fumble by Hutchison, giving them yet another comeback attempt with 2:04 left in the fourth quarter.
If the Sultans' offense could have kept the ball away from Hutchison, they might have escaped with their fifth win of the season. as it turned out, Hutchison ended the next two Sultans' drives by intercepting passes from Gasner, allowing the Warhawks to escape with a 23-14 win.
One of the ironies of this game was that it was Madison's homecoming game, yet it was played at Mira Mesa High School. Madison's home field and stadium, located in Clairemont, are under construction during the 2010 season.
Another irony was that the losing coach seemed pleased with his team's effort while the winning coach was unhappy with his team's performance.
Santana head coach Dave Gross felt that his team came away with some positives in spite of the loss: "Madison's a very talented team, I mean athletically I didn't think we could hang with their speed, but we had a great effort," Gross said, "It was a great game to have going into league."
Credit should also be given to the solid performance of the Sultans' defense. Butler finished the night with two sacks and partially blocked a punt, while his teammate, Jason Patterson, also had two sacks and a tackle for a loss.
In spite of the win, Madison head coach Rick Jackson was not pleased with the Warhawks' play in this game and described what he thought the key to the win was: "A little bit of luck really. We didn't play very well, dropped a lot of balls, turned the ball over, [Santana] played really well. I think we just kind of outlasted them. Obviously the defensive touchdown was huge, because that turned the momentum back in our favor."
Madison improves to 4-1 with the win and visits Mission Bay (0-5) next week in Pacific Beach. The Sultans drop to 4-1-1 with the loss and will face El Capitan (1-4) at home next week. That game will mark the beginning of Grossmont Valley league play for the Sultans.
Christopher Mohr is a freelance writer in the San Diego area and is an avid Chargers, Padres and Detroit Red Wings fan.
M - Hardwick 23 run (Esser kick)
S - Lozoya 9 pass from Gasner (Cornish kick)
M - Hutchison 17 pass from Knox (Esser kick)
S - Gross 32 pass from Gasner (Cornish kick)
M - Esser 22 FG
S - Breidt 13 pass from Gasner (Cornish kick)
M - Hutchison 33 interception return (kick failed)