The message was clear and consistent throughout the past two weeks: Swarm to the football and gang tackle.
But the Mira Costa High defense found out on Thursday that even the best game planning doesn't guarantee tackles against shiftiness and top end speed, as several big plays in the passing game gave Serra High a 35-13 victory over the Mustangs at El Camino College.
"We could have done a lot of things better tonight, but they are a great team and catching and tackling them is a lot easier said than done," senior wide receiver and defensive back Sam Stekol said.
On its second possession of the game, Cavaliers' quarterback Conner Preston found his All-American wide receiver George Farmer on a short pass. Farmer made a quick move then criss-crossed the field, with a bevy of stops and starts, avoiding several Mustangs' tacklers in what would end 57-yard gain to the Mira Costa 13-yard line before being brought down by Geoff LaPointe.
Serra running back Shaquille Richard then took three consecutive carries, scoring on a pitch to the left side from three yards out to give the Cavaliers a 7-0 lead with three minutes to go in the first quarter.
"Playing a team like this really helped us understand what fast really is, we thought we had an idea, but they proved just how explosive they are," Stekol said.
The Mustangs offense was not able to get much going, but the defense held tough in the first half, getting timely sacks from linebacker Noah Rossi and nose guard J.R. Tavai, who did a great job of applying a consistent push up the middle.
The Cavaliers, relying mostly on four wide receiver sets out of the shotgun, again showed their potency when midway through the second quarter, Preston went deep down the sideline to receiver Marqise Lee for a 45-yard score. That touchdown was negated by a holding call. But on third-and-24 Preston went back to Lee again who sped down the sideline in what resulted in a 60-yard pick up before being forced out of bounds by Stekol.
Preston was sacked on the next play by Andra Windom and the Mustangs defense held tough, forcing the Cavaliers into a 34-yard field goal attempt. A poor snap execution lead to holder Louis Murray running for no gain and the Mustangs were content going into halftime with a 7-0 deficit.
"The defense put up a great fight in the first half, the whole game we competed and definitely gave up some big plays, but we knew it would not be easy going in," Coach Don Morrow said.
Coming out of the half, the Mustangs forced Serra into three-and-out and after an unsportsmanlike call, Mira Costa had excellent field position starting from the Serra 40-yard line. Quarterback Dennis Falcone, making his first career start, looked for Stekol deep, but was intercepted by defensive back Raymond Ford at the 10-yard line.
"We knew their defensive line was good and we tried to see what we could do in the passing game early on, their pass rush was crazy though and it was difficult to let the plays develop with that pressure," Falcone said.
Two plays later, Preston found Ford on a quick screen in which he made two defenders miss and sprinted 90 yards down field before being tripped up by Deon Morris at the goal line. Preston then called his own number, scoring from a yard out and giving the Cavaliers a 14-0 lead.
On their next possession, the Cavaliers needed only one play for their next score, this time a 63-yard pass from Preston to Lee down the far sideline. It was the third pass play of more than 50 yards for the Cavaliers.
Trailing 21-0, the Mustang offense found some traction and marched down the field with Falcone completing passes to Dante Bavis and Stekol. Junior quarterback Christian Rogers also came in and from the shotgun scampered up the middle for 19 yards.
From the 14-yardline, Falcone was barely able to get off a throw to the corner of the end zone where Tavai made a tremendous catch against the sideline.
The Cavaliers added another score on a 12-yard run by Anterio Bateman and an interception return for a touchdown by Marqise Lee.
"We had a great opportunity to play such a tough team, they have special players and they are a respectable group of guys. Speed is hard to figure out, we competed hard and hopefully we can build on what we did well and learn from this," Rossi said.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Mustangs' passing game found some rhythm, putting together a nice drive with Falcone finding receivers Troy Saeman, Stekol and Alec Weaver for first downs.
Stekol then made an amazing one-handed snag in the end zone, hauling in a 17-yard touchdown from Falcone, making the score 35-13.
"Dennis showed a lot of courage standing in the pocket and taking some big hits, it's his first high school start against a team of that caliber it was a tall order," Morrow said.
Stekol lead the Mustangs with six receptions for 89 yards and the late touchdown.
"Sam had a great summer for us and we've believed that this could be a big year for him, he made some really nice plays out there for us," Morrow said.