The wakeup call for Rancho Alamitos' slumbering football team came with 4:37 left in the third quarter.
It came rather abruptly when defender Rich Allen stepped in front of intended receiver Curt Huffmire, picked off a pass by Pacifica quarterback Brian Wolfson and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown.
Allen's interception triggered a second-half surge that lifted Rancho Alamitos to a 35-14 comeback victory Thursday night in front of 1,200 at Bolsa Grande High.
Until Allen's big play, Rancho Alamitos had recorded only three first downs and was trailing, 14-7, midway through the third quarter. Pacifica's defense had contained Rancho Alamitos' highly publicized running attack, limiting the Vaqueros to only 68 yards rushing in the first half.
But Rancho Alamitos (4-1, 2-0) rallied in the second half when Coach Mark Miller ordered his team into a double-stacked I-formation that allowed Jeff Byrd to run wild. Byrd scored on runs of 42, 52, 28 and 11 yards and finished with 209 yards rushing in 19 carries.
"They went to that tight, double-stack I and had too much muscle for us," Pacifica Coach Bill Craven said. "The interception turned the game around. Our quarterback made a bad read on the coverage, and we paid for it. Still, I thought we got a lot of mileage out of our kids."
Craven had earlier conceded that there wasn't a team in the Garden Grove League that could match up physically with Rancho Alamitos. Later, Craven was asked how Rancho Alamitos backfield stars Marshall Brown, Leon Vickers and Byrd compared to Bolsa Grande's triple-threat backfield of Damon Fisher, Ricky Lepule and Travin Lui that established a county rushing record with 4,801 yards in 1987.
"These guys are physically more intimidating," Craven said. "Bolsa Grande was explosive with Fisher at quarterback, but this team can pound you."
Rancho Alamitos Coach Mark Miller's biggest fear, the big letdown, nearly came to pass in the first half. The Vaqueros were coming off emotional victories over Mission Viejo and Garden Grove in successive weeks and had only three days to prepare for Pacifica.
Pacifica (3-2, 1-1) clearly outplayed Rancho Alamitos in the first half, taking a 7-0 lead after defensive back Jeff DePippo had intercepted a pass by Rancho Alamitos' Brown early in the first quarter at his own 40-yard line.
Pacifica had a second touchdown called back three minutes later when a clipping penalty nullified Josh Lewis' 66-yard run.
"We were lucky to get out of here alive," Miller said. "Hopefully, the kids learned something tonight. We had lousy practices all week. I could see this coming. Fortunately, we came back in the second half."