By Ray Hamill — Arcata head coach Jamal Jones challenged his players this week, and on Friday night they responded to that challenge in emphatic fashion.
Defensively, the Tigers have been impressive through league play, but offensively they have been inconsistent, with too many drives stalling and not enough points being scored.
Jones told his players this week it was time to put up or shut up, challenging his offense and looking for a response.
He got it and more, as the Tigers came out on fire, steamrolling their way past the Panthers early on and scoring touchdowns on three of their five first-half possessions on the way to a 24-15 win.
The victory lifts the Tigers to 3-1 in the Little 4 and will keep them in a tie atop the standings with whoever wins Saturday’s big game between Hoopa and Ferndale, each of which is 2-1.
And it all started with a dominating performance from the offensive line.
“The Arcata offensive line showed up to play tonight,” McKinleyville head coach Keoki Burbank said. “They caught us off guard and they manhandled us in the first half. Those guys had a great game as a unit.”
The Tigers marched 63 yards on eight plays to open the game, with junior running back Kien Mazzotti finding the end zone on a two-yard run.
“I think they responded,” Jones said of his players. “We have a lot of kids that believe in one another, and they responded tonight. Those kids deserve a lot of credit.”
Mazzotti and fellow running back Everett Halikas looked sharp all night behind the dominating line, as did quarterback Matt Robinson.
Robinson, who wasn’t even the starter at the outset of the season, has grown in leaps and bounds since then, and delivered a key pass to receiver Lisandro Carrillo for a 23-yard completion on the opening drive.
The Tigers’ defense had another impressive showing with a pair of first-half fumble recoveries, both leading to offensive TDs.
And both were recovered by junior lineman Max Rice, who is enjoying a stellar season.
On their third possession, the Tigers drove 57 yards on eight plays, with Mazzotti again finding the end zone, this time from three yards out.
And once again Robinson came up with a key completion to keep the drive going, this time to Paul Lauermann for 26 yards.
The Tigers made it 18-0 just before halftime when Robinson found Kevin Madero on a nice pass and catch in the end zone, capping a three-play drive after Rice gave his team possession in Panthers territory.
Robinson capped a good day with a three-yard TD run late in the third quarter, as the Tigers pulled out to a 24-0 lead.
“They’re just a resilient group of players,” Jones said of his team.
With the win, the Tigers improved to 4-4 on the season, and have now won four of their past five games.
For McKinleyville, there were plenty of familiar problems, with penalties and fumbles taking their toll.
“We’re getting better at some of the stuff that has hurt us, but there’s still too much,” Burbank said. “We can’t compete with a team that plays as well as Arcata played if you make mistakes.”
The Panthers, however, refused to give up and made things interesting late, scoring a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to make a game of it.
Junior Kaden Redner had a big fourth quarter, recovering a fumble three minutes into the period to set up the first of two Caleb Martinez touchdown runs.
Redner then recovered the ensuing onside kick to set up the second Martinez score.
Martinez’s TDs came on runs of three and 14 yards, and he added a two-point conversion run after the second to pull his team within nine points of the visitors with just over four minutes remaining.
That, however, was as close as the Panthers would get, with Arcata’s Halikas converting an important fourth down on the following drive, as the Tigers ate away at the clock.
The Panthers did get the ball again in the final two minutes, but a big Matt Jioras sack ended any hope of a miracle comeback.
“I was really proud of the guys that they were able to battle back,” Burbank said. “We have guys who will fight all the way to the end.”
Linebacker Kyler Carr had another big night on defense for the Panthers, while coming up with some keys runs on offense.
Quarterback Jack Patton also impressed at times, most notably with a big 27-yard scramble for a first down early in the second quarter when his team needed it the most.
Martinez also impressed with his running, and in addition to the two scoring runs had a big 38-yard run early in the third quarter.
On the first of the two scoring drives, Patton completed a key 20-yard pass to Mathias Briggs, while Rylin Grow and Kameron Conlin each had big gains of 19 and 16 yards, respectively, to help set up the second score.
With the loss, the Panthers drop to 0-4 in league and 2-6 on the season.
Next week, Mack travels to play Ferndale, while Arcata hosts Hoopa Valley.