An unfamiliar position became increasingly uncomfortable for the Costa Mesa High football team Friday night.
Coming off a season in which they lost all 10 games by an average of more than 46 points, the Mustangs built a 21-0 halftime lead against Santiago in a season opener at Garden Grove High.
But though the Cavaliers waged a valiant comeback that kept the outcome in doubt into the final minute, Costa Mesa ultimately emerged with a 21-18 victory that halted the program’s 16-game losing streak.
First-year Mustangs coach Jimmy Nolan, who has made a career out of injecting belief and success into downtrodden programs, clearly had the visitors ready to shake their doormat tag with an impressive first-half performance.
Costa Mesa, which had won just four games in the previous three seasons, rode the strong performance of junior quarterback Nick Burton and some explosive scoring plays by junior Alex Jennis to construct a three-touchdown cushion in the first two quarters.
Burton, a Marina High transfer making his first varsity start, posted 108 of his 118 passing yards and 54 of his 72 rushing yards before halftime. He opened the scoring by lofting a 38-yard touchdown pass to Jennis on fourth-and-10 to cap the Mustangs’ second possession with 5:17 left in the first quarter.
Jennis took a reverse pitch 36 yards for a touchdown to double the advantage on the Mustangs’ next possession, and Burton scrambled 20 yards off left tackle to finalize the first-half scoring with 2:08 left before the break.
But Costa Mesa struggled to move the ball after halftime and a seemingly blatant disregard for clock management allowed Santiago to right itself and mount a comeback.
The Cavaliers pulled to within 21-6 with 5:36 left in the third quarter, but a mishandled snap from kick formation on the subsequent conversion attempt allowed the Mustangs to maintain their 15-point edge.
Santiago, which had beaten Costa Mesa in the teams’ previous three meetings, trimmed the deficit when Bernardo Monroy’s two-yard quarterback sneak made it 21-12 with 2:06 left in the game. Monroy again tried a sneak on the two-point conversion attempt, but was stopped inches short of the goal line.
After the Mustangs took just 30 seconds off the clock before a punt to the Santiago 41 on the ensuing possession, a Costa Mesa pass interference penalty and three Monroy pass completions, the last a 21-yard scoring strike to Abraham Saldana, helped the hosts pull within three points with 51 seconds left.
Yet again the Santiago snap from kick formation sailed between the holder and the kicker, creating a desperation scramble that was stopped for a huge loss and failed to change the score.
After the Mustangs’ Jackson Galitski fell on a pooch onside kickoff attempt at the Costa Mesa 39, Santiago could not stop the clock and the Mustangs celebrated after taking a knee on two straight snaps.
Burton was 11 for 19 passing and also led the winners with 72 yards on 10 rushing attempts. He also sparkled at outside linebacker to help a solid defensive performance by the Mustangs.
Jennis had 42 yards on two receptions and carried four times for 32 rushing yards.
Mesa’s five fourth-quarter possessions lasted just 49, 60, 90, 30 and 42 seconds, as six incomplete passes, three penalties and running plays that ended out of bounds helped Santiago preserve valuable time.
Costa Mesa 21, Santiago 18
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Costa Mesa 7 – 14 – 0 – 0 — 21
Santiago 0 – 0 – 6 – 12 — 18
CM – Jennis 38 pass from Burton (Oliver kick), 5:17.
CM – Jennis 36 run (Oliver kick), 8:58.
CM – Burton 20 run (Oliver kick), 2:08.
S – Monroy 8 run (run failed), 5:36.
S – Monroy 2 run (run failed), 3:06.
S – Saldana 21 pass from Monroy (run failed), :51.
CM – Burton, 10-72, 1 TD.
S – Monroy, 19-51, 2 TDs.
CM – Burton, 11-19-1, 118, 1 TD.
S – Monroy, 11-27-1, 169, 1 TD.
CM – Ortega, 3-40.
S – Villa, 3-70.
Support our sports coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.