By Ray Hamill — Junior running back Kien Mazzotti scored three second-half touchdowns on Friday night, as the Arcata Tigers got the better of their closest rivals McKinleyville, 26-0 at the Redwood Bowl.
The two teams matched each other stride for stride in the first half of this Little 4 opener, with both defenses dominating the early exchanges.
The Tigers, however, made the better adjustments at the interval, and when Mazzotti broke free for a 57-yard touchdown run just three minutes into the second half, there was no turning back for the home team.
“You know, when they broke that big touchdown run, I think we didn’t respond well after that,” McKinleyville head coach Keoki Burbank said. “Part of our growing is facing adversity and being able to bounce back, and we have to do a better job of responding and coming back.”
Burbank knew coming in that one of the keys for his team was being able to contain Arcata’s dynamic duo in the backfield, Mazzotti and sophomore Everett Halikas.
Mazzotti looked fired up from the start with a big series on the defensive side of the ball on the visitors’ first possession, and then announcing his presence on the offensive side of things with a 36-yard gain on his team’s third play from scrimmage.
Arcata moved the ball the better of the two teams early on, but neither was really able to sustain much of a drive with both defenses looking up for the challenge.
The young Arcata tackle tandem of junior Mateo Vincent and freshman Syrus Houle did a good job of shoring up the middle and helping hold a potent Mack running game in check throughout.
Vincent had a huge night, recovering two fumbles, one in either half, as the Tigers defense turned in a dominating performance, particularly in the second half.
“Our defense …” Arcata head coach Jamal Jones said, smiling and shaking his head in admiration. “It’s not even just the shutout, it’s how the shutout took place.
“That was the biggest thing coming in for us is the wing-T presents a lot of challenges. It was a very disciplined defense.”
Great field position
Offensively, Mazzotti was almost unstoppable in the second half, adding a touchdown run of seven yards on the Tigers’ third possession, breaking a couple of tackles in the backfield and switching direction with a nice move on his way to the end zone.
The score capped a 10-play 69-yard drive.
The junior standout added his third TD run early in the fourth quarter, this time from three yards out, as the Tigers took advantage of great field position after a high snap on a punt attempt gave them the ball at the seven-yard line.
That mistake compounded the Panthers’ problems, as the game began to slip away from them.
Injuries to two key players didn’t help, with running back Kameron Conlin stretchered off in the second half, and standout lineman Nate Ballew leaving the game with an ankle injury.
The Tigers, who were missing five starters through injury themselves, grew stronger as the game wore on.
Halikas added the Tigers’ fourth touchdown of the night on a 10-yard run with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, when the Panthers coughed up possession on downs at their own 20 after being forced to go for it on fourth down.
Matt Robinson added a late interception for the Tigers to cap a very impressive second half that saw the hard-hitting home defense not allow a single first down.
“Arcata made some nice adjustments,” Burbank said.
McKinleyville’s only real sustained drive of the night came in the second quarter, when they marched from midfield to the Arcata 16, only to see a field goal attempt blocked by Hayden Santsche.
Defensively, the Panthers had a good night, only allowing one sustained drive of more than seven plays, while two of the Tigers’ four scoring drives began in the red zone.
Russell Dees and Che Jimenez each came away with an interception for Mack, the former in the end zone, while the Panthers coverage in the secondary kept the Tigers passing attack in check throughout.
With the win, the Tigers improve to 2-3 on the season, while the Panthers drop to 2-3.
Arcata, which has now won two straight, travels to Hoopa next week, while McKinleyville hosts Ferndale.