SANTA FE SPRINGS — On fourth down with a yard to go, the St. Francis High football team's season hung by a thread late Friday night.
So too did host St. Paul's, as the Swordsmen were not only feet from a first down, but 10 yards from a game-tying touchdown and most likely a game-winning extra point with less than a minute to go.
The Golden Knights defense, which had earlier come up with two first-half turnovers and a touchdown to provide a lead the team would never lose, protected that all-important patch of worn, muddy grass accordingly, with a host of Knights stuffing St. Paul running back David Cabral inches short of the first to preserve a 28-22 Mission League win and keep St. Francis' playoff hopes very much alive.
"I think we did great," defensive lineman Matt Casciani said of the team's defensive effort. "Our stop in the end was probably the best part of the game. I'm so proud of my teammates."
St. Francis, ranked ninth in the CIF Southern Section Western Division, entered on a two-game losing streak in league, but by improving to 7-2 and 2-2 in league, stayed in contention for one of the league's two automatic playoff berth and also bolstered its case for an at-large CIF berth should it fail to clinch automatic entry.
Sixth-ranked St. Paul (6-3, 1-3) had scored a touchdown on a two-yard sneak by quarterback Paul Telles with a two-point conversion to pull within 28-22 with 7:37 left in the game before stopping St. Francis' ensuing drive at midfield and forcing a punt.
And a fine punt by Forrest Ascarrunz it was, pinning St. Paul back on its own 10 with just over five minutes left. But just as they had moved the ball 75 yards briskly in 13 plays on their previous drive, the Swordsmen reached the Golden Knights' 30-yard line in eight plays, seven of them running.
"We got a good idea early in the drive what their plan was," St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said. "It was going to be to pound us all the way down the field with their big run. Their linemen are good-sized guys and they were getting eight-10 yards a pop on those runs."
On fourth and five at the 27, Telles converted on a nine-yard pass to Zach Ramsay. After a run for a loss, Telles took a shot into the end zone that was high and slipped just off the fingers of Ramsay. His next pass, to Andrew Garcia, went for 11 yards, setting up the tense fourth and one.
"It was definitely a yo-yo ride just waiting," Bonds said. "That's a coach's nightmare, when your defense is out there and they're getting yards running the ball. But we held when it counted."
Leading by a touchdown at halftime, St. Francis scored on its first two possessions of the second half. Austin De Los Santos, who finished with 119 yards and two touchdowns in 23 carries, rushed for 42 on the Golden Knights' 77-yard drive to open the third quarter, capping the drive himself with a 12-yard run to put St. Francis up, 21-7, at the 9:34 mark.
St. Paul answered with a 12-play, 90-yard drive capped by a one-yard Cabral run at the 4:33 mark of the third. But the Golden Knights kept pace with a 10-play, 84-yard drive on which De Los Santos put St. Francis back up, 28-14, with an eight-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Swordsmen opened the game with an 80-yard drive on 10 plays, all running, to take a 7-0 lead on a five-yard run around left end by Cabral at the 7:43 mark.
St. Francis answered right back with a less conventional, but equally effective 55-yard drive that stalled at the St. Paul 49-yard line. On fourth and inches, the Golden Knights went for it and picked up way more than needed for the first down.
With the entirety of the Swordsmen defense stacked up on the line of scrimmage, Luke Anderson somehow barreled through untouched and had a clear path through the empty defensive backfield, running 49 yards for a touchdown with 4:27 left in the opening period.
The next St. Francis touchdown came just as suddenly, when defensive lineman Casciani batted a Telles pass into the air and intercepted it before rumbling 58 yards for a touchdown on the return.
Down, 14-7, but threatening to tie the game while driving inside the St. Francis 10, Telles lost a fumble at the eight with five minutes left in the second quarter that allowed St. Francis to maintain its halftime lead.
"We think we match up well with St. Paul, but this is a tough place to play," Bonds said. "They got all the calls and that's what you expect when you come down here to play in 'The Pit.'
"But we didn't quit, we played four quarters, hard-fought."