Commentary

Defense saves the day for Oaks Christian

Updated: September 21, 2009, 4:03 PM ET
By Mark Tennis | Deput Editor, ESPNRISE.com

SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- With all of the offensive star power on the Oaks Christian High football team, the defense tends to get overlooked.

But in the biggest game in school history, which was on Friday night at Spartan Stadium that matched the Lions against Skyline of Sammamish, Wash., it was that defense that came through with the biggest play.

Oaks Christian held on for a 28-25 win, improving to 3-0 and putting itself in position to move up from its current No. 6 position in the ESPN RISE FAB 50, especially in two weeks after a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown between St. Thomas Aquinas of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Byrnes of Duncan, S.C. No. 9 FAB 50-ranked Skyline had its 30-game win streak snapped and likely will drop out of the top 10 in next week's rankings, although the Spartans are still regarded as a favorite to win their third straight Class 4A state title and may not drop too far given the back-and-forth nature of the loss.

With less than one minute left in the game and Skyline's offense in position to perhaps steal a win in a game it looked almost certain it would lose, Spartans quarterback Jake Heaps dropped back to pass at the Oaks Christian 30-yard line. Heaps was hit by junior defensive lineman Austin Carey, who was in the game for injured standout Cassius Marsh, and the ball floated out of his arm. Senior Max Napolitano came up with the interception with 49.4 seconds left for the Lions, who then ran out the clock.

"I can't say enough about that team we just played," said Oaks Christian head coach Bill Redell. "I thought the team that had the ball last would win and I guess that's true because we were taking a knee at the end. If we kicked off again tomorrow, I don't know which team would win."

Redell's quarterback, University of Washington-bound senior Nick Montana, completed 21 of 33 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns. He spread the ball around to a more varied group of targets than in his previous outings this season, particularly junior Trey Smith, who led Oaks Christian with eight catches for 69 yards and scored the team's first touchdown on a 12-yard hookup from Montana. Senior Alani Fua, more known by college scouts as a defensive end, caught Montana's other two touchdown passes as a tight end on plays covering 24 and 25 yards.

"Overall, we were a lot more consistent than in our first two games," said Montana, shortly after exchanging postgame greetings with his father, Joe, the Hall of Fame quarterback. "So many guys had great games, including Trey and Alani. The offensive line was protecting well on those plays and the whole team played great."

Smith scored his first career touchdown, took his first crunching hit on a pass he couldn't hold onto and his famous dad, actor Will Smith, got to see it from the sidelines.

"I was just running my routes and doing things I've been doing in practice," said Trey Smith, when asked if he thought this could be a breakout game for him. "It felt really cool (to score my first touchdown). It was pretty cool for our team, too."

Both teams came from behind to take leads during the game.

Skyline bounced back from an early 14-0 deficit to take a 17-14 lead in the second quarter. The Spartans were on the verge of getting blown out after Smith's touchdown and then Montana's 24-yard scoring strike to Fua. They had been pushed back to start their fifth series of the game on their own 16-yard line and then turned the momentum around on one play.

Kasen Williams, the team's mercurial 6-2, 200-pound junior receiver who is regarded as one of the best Class of 2011 college prospects in the nation, broke loose on a 20-yard pass downfield by Heaps. After two cutbacks, Williams was headed for an 84-yard touchdown reception, but then lost control of the ball at the Oaks Christian 10-yard line. The ball bounced forward all the way into the end zone, but Williams was able to fall on it. He still scored the touchdown but on a fumble recovery in the end zone and not on a touchdown pass.

After Oaks Christian went three-and-out on its next series, Heaps and Williams hooked up again, this time on a more conventional end zone corner route in which Williams beat the defense and caught a 38-yard touchdown from Heaps.

"The hardest part for me right now is just to keep my head up," said Williams, who finished with six catches for 163 yards. "I don't know how to do this because I've never had to do it before. But I've just got to take it and be strong for my team."

The Spartans weren't done after tying the score, either. After recovering a fumble, they drove into position for a 30-yard field goal by Sean Penberthy with 4:25 left before halftime.

Oaks Christian then showed its comeback ability by reclaiming the lead at 21-17 just before halftime. That drive was set up on a 49-yard bomb from Montana to junior Blair Holliday and culminated when Montana found Fua for his 25-yard score.

Turnovers  one on an interception by Skyline's Michael Ford, another on a fumble recovery by Oaks Christian's Weston Denham and finally an interception by Oaks Christian's Brian Fifita  prevented either team from completing scoring drives in the third quarter.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Oaks Christian's Malcolm Jones, who rushed for 275 yards in the team's first game, took a handoff on a third-and-one play and broke it back against the grain for a 48-yard touchdown. The extra point gave the Lions a 28-17 advantage.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Lions had the ball again and advanced it to Skyline's 24-yard line. Instead of letting the game slip completely away, though, the Spartan defense came up with their biggest play on an interception by Ford. He returned the theft all the way to the Oaks Christian 47 yard line. That set up a short field, which Skyline capitalized on by scoring on a one-yard run by senior running back Nick Washburn (19 carries, 80 yards) with just 3:31 left. Washburn had runs of 10 and 15 yards earlier in the drive. The Spartans then scored two points on their conversion on a pass from Heaps to Ford, cutting the lead to 28-25.

Oaks Christian could not convert on a third-down play on its next series, which then set up the possibility of the Spartans scoring at the end to win the game. The Spartans got as far as the Oaks Christian 30 yard line until the Lions' defense came through for its game-saving play.

Heaps, who roomed with Montana when the two attended the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp last summer and has committed to BYU, completed 13 of 30 passes for 250 yards. He had two touchdowns, but three interceptions, although two of those were as a direct result of getting hit just as the ball was coming out of his hand.

"You definitely saw us come back and make plays, but in the first quarter we definitely were nervous," Heaps said. "When we were down, there was no doubt among any of us that we'd come back."

Heaps also had another explanation for the team's slow start.

"They have a different kind of speed we haven't seen before," he said. "It took a while to adjust, but I think we did."

Jones, who led all rushers with 20 carries for 137 yards, hopes the win will set up his team for a memorable finish.

"We're not going to slack off at all," he said. "We're just pumped up and ready for rest of the season. We'll have a bye next week to heal up from this big game, but then we'll be ready to go."