KEZAR STADIUM — There have been other entertaining installments in the age-old Bruce-Mahoney rivalry, but Friday night’s meeting on the gridiron, an exciting 26-21 win by Sacred Heart Cathedral, may have been the most well-played football game in all the years of battles between the Fightin’ Irish and the St. Ignatius Wildcats.
Anthony Heard ran for 220 yards and three touchdowns, and an 18-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Cian Dowling to LeVar Watkins Jr. gave SHC the lead for good with 3:48 left.
“It’s not always easy, but these kids buy in to what we’re teaching them on and off the field,” said SHC head coach Barry McLaughlin. “It’s shown in some adverse situations that we’ve put ourselves in. They believe in the coaching, we believe in them to make plays and we come together as a group.”
St. Ignatius (0-6, 0-3 WCAL) had been in front for more than 24 minutes on the night, but the Irish came to life on offense in the second half behind Heard’s legs and the arm of their sophomore quarterback, making just his second start after missing the first four games as he sat out the transfer period, coming over to Sacred Heart Cathedral from SI.
Heard ran for 164 of his yards in the second half on 19 carries, and he played a major role in all three second-half scoring drives for the Irish (3-3, 1-2). His first two runs on the half went for no gain, and all the momentum seemed to sit with the Wildcats, who held the ball with a 14-7 lead after a failed fake punt.
A Lio Mateo interception injected new life into the Irish. Heard ran for 34 yards on the next play, and on fourth-and-15 at the 30, Heard took a short pass from Dowling and fought through contact for a gain of 17 to extend the drive. Four plays later, his 1-yard plunge tied the score with 4:14 left in the third.
A St. Ignatius three-and-out gave the ball back to Sacred Heart Cathedral, and with 10:02 left in the fourth, Heard found paydirt again, this time on a five-yard run to put his team in front for the first time on the night. A bad snap on the extra point left the Irish in front by just six, and seemed to inject new life into an SI offense that had been quieted for most of the half.
Sophomore running back Jahsai Shannon set things up with a 36-yard kick return, and junior quarterback Zach Taylor-Smith, making his first varsity start, hit Matt Rosen for a gain of 34, a critical play after the Sacred Heart Cathedral defense had started to contain the Wildcat run game. The rushing attack continued to be held in check, with a six-yard loss setting up a third-and-16 minutes later, but Taylor-Smith found Rosen on a quick inside route for a 16-yard score. With Cormac Gallagher’s extra point, St. Ignatius was back on top, 21-20, giving Irish fans painful memories of a similar one-point loss back in 2015.
Those memories wouldn’t become a reality. Heard started the next drive with a gain of 46, and though an illegal man downfield penalty would negate a touchdown from Dowling to Watkins Jr., the exact same combo would connect on the following play for an 18-yard score.
Taylor-Smith, who had been sharp all night, would have one last chance for the Wildcats, and though he did start the drive with a 12-yard run on a clever draw to get to midfield, the offense would stall from there. Gallagher’s first and only carry of the night was a five-yard gain on third-and-10, and an overthrown deep pass would cause a turnover on downs and all but seal the game. Heard would twist the knife with runs of 16 and 10, and Dowling was able to kneel from there to run out the clock.
Not only was it a down-to-the-wire finish on a rare cloudless and temperate night at Kezar Stadium, but it was an overall smooth game. There were just two turnovers on the night– an early Irish fumble that set up SI’s opening score (a one-yard touchdown run by Mark Biggins Jr.) and the momentum-shifting interception in the third. After Heard tied the game with his first score of the night — a six-yard run — Biggins went on a 60-yard run to set up a 1-yard plunge by Taylor-Smith.
Though the two quarterbacks entered the night with one combined varsity start between them — Dowling’s appearance last week against a loaded St. Francis defensive front — both looked sharp under pressure. Dowling was 12-for-15 for 106 yards, while Taylor-Smith completed 10-of-16 for 129.
“We played great all-around,” said Dowling, who connected with Watkins for four passes and 47 yards, including the game-winning score.
Sacred Heart Cathedral can retain the trophy by winning the basketball game, set for January 8 at USF. Should SI even up the series there, the baseball game — tentatively scheduled for March 16 — would decide the trophy.
It’s a win that also has the Irish in prime position for a second consecutive Central Coast Section playoff berth. The top six of the West Catholic Athletic League typically qualify for the postseason, and a win next week over Bellarmine or a Stanfel Cup victory over Riordan would likely do the trick.