PITTSBURG — Down by 10 points with under two minutes to go, San Mateo-Serra quarterback Luke Bottari stepped up into pressure and heaved a 20-yard pass up the seam.
“He probably forced it there,” said head coach Patrick Walsh. “[He was] trying to hit a home run. I think someone crawled into his knees, and he couldn’t really step into his throw.”
Josiah Porter broke to his left, leaped up and came down with Pittsburg’s third interception of the game, returning it 14 yards to seal a 45-35 win over the Padres.
Up to that point, Bottari had completed 23 of 32 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns, but it was his three picks that defined Serra’s second loss in its first three games. Along with those three interceptions — including a pick-six — Serra also gave up a fumble return touchdown in what proved to be a nightmare third quarter.
“This is a great team, and they’re going to make a deep run into the playoffs,” Walsh said. “We [gave up] two defensive touchdowns, four turnovers, we didn’t play well enough to win the game. On the flipside of that, they’re a great football team, and I tip my hat to coach [Victor] Galli and everything he does there at Pittsburg.”
After a 20-yard touchdown catch by Willie Harts capped a quick opening drive for the Pirates, Harts — who has scholarship offers from Cal, Arizona State, Colorado State, Oregon State, Washington State and Nevada — added an 85-yard pick six with 7:09 left in the first quarter to put Pittsburg up 14-0.
Bottari responded with a 20-yard slant to Malakai Rango with 2:08 left in the first quarter. After a 53-yard kickoff return by Premier Murphy, the Pirates marched quickly the rest of the way for a 2:09 scoring drive capped by a fake handoff that opened quarterback Trey Turner for a four-yard touchdown run.
The Padres had a chance to respond, with third-and-three at the Pittsburg 11, but a pick by Josiah Porter in the backfield with 1:28 left in the quarter stymied that.
Bottari got hot in the second quarter, going 10-for-12 for 92 yards, capped by a 25-yard touchdown to Nate Sanchez. Meanwhile, the Serra defense got salty, sacking Turner twice times — both by E.J. Lahlouh — and holding the Pirates to just 11 net yards of offense.
After tying things up 21-21, Serra looked to have turned a corner. Then the third quarter started. After fending off Washington-bound defensive tackle Jacob Bandes during a physical first half, the Padres began to wear down, and Bottari felt the pressure.
“I thought our offensive line was overachieving [early],” Walsh said. “We were blocking really well, particularly in the passing game, and then, they got some legitimate talent — Saturday talent, maybe Sunday talent — and they just started to wear us down a little bit and protection started to break down.”
After running for seven yards and a touchdown in the first half, Bottari was sacked twice in the second and had four zero-gain runs after halftime.
“We had two three-and-outs, short field, they manned up and played great defense,” Walsh said.
Bottari completed just one pass for negative yardage, as Sanchez was held to just 18 rushing yards. The Padres went three-and-out on each of their first two drives, while Pittsburg got a 15-yard touchdown run from Jack Lacy III and a 20-yard field goal with 3:47 to go in the period to take a 31-21 lead.
“If you look at the tale of the first half and the second half, it was the pressure that the defensive front was putting on our offensive line,” Walsh said. “Luke still made a hell of a lot of plays in that second half, but to be consistent in a win, we need more time, and we’ve just got to figure out how to block NFL players.”
The Pirates also turned to junior running back Melvin Riley, who ran roughshod over a battered Serra front. In 14 second-half carries, Riley ran for 142 yards, including six runs of 10 yards or more.
“Unfortunately, we just couldn’t move the chains enough to keep our defense off the field, and they did a really good job of running the football,” Walsh said.
While Riley didn’t find paydirt, Pittsburg got a 17-yard rushing touchdown from Avant Muldrow with 20.6 seconds left in the third, and scored on a fumble recovery by Porter, who stripped junior receiver Matt Rollandi at the 30 and returned it for the Pirates’ second defensive touchdown as the third quarter expired.
“The defense can score too, and those two touchdowns bit us.” Walsh said.
The Padres made things interesting with a 71-yard drive to start the fourth, capped off by a 31-yard touchdown on a screen to Sanchez (who finished with 90 yards rushing and 60 yards receiving) and a 24-yard middle screen to Patrick Simon with 4:56 to go. Pittsburg, though, chewed up 2:40 on the clock with a seven-play drive deep into Serra territory, setting up the final desperate drive.
Serra, though it has been inconsistent over their first three games, started 1-2 last season, before winning 12 of its final 13 games, including the Div. 2-AA state title over Cajon. That season, the Padres also lost their third game to Pittsburg, 35-28.
“We didn’t show any fight in the first two games, and I told our kids that this game was about grit, about resolve and about toughness, and I thought we saw a little bit of that tonight from my team, and that’s a positive,” Walsh said.
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