SAN CLEMENTE — Coach Jeff Brinkley called Friday's night game the most physical of the year for Newport Harbor High.
By the number of personal-foul penalties called on San Clemente, you might understand why.
The Sailors fought back the right way and they had more than a fighter's chance at San Clemente, ranked No. 4 in the CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division.
But just like the first two games of the year, the Sailors fell at the end. San Clemente won, 24-12, and stayed perfect at 5-0, while the Sailors searched for answers.
Brinkley compared the setback to the season-opening loss at Trabuco Hills and the home opener to Loyola of Los Angeles. In each of those contests, Newport Harbor was in the game in the third quarter.
The Sailors (1-3) were right in the thick of it against San Clemente. Titus Hasson returned the second-half kickoff 65 yards to the Tritons' 33. The big play allowed receiver Landon Gyulay and Cole Blower to hook up for a second touchdown pass, cutting the Tritons' lead to 17-12.
Newport Harbor, however, never scored again. The offense struggled to run the ball, recording 34 yards on 26 carries. Blower and Gyulay produced most of the offense, Blower finished with 140 yards, 101 of them on five passes to Gyulay.
The defense kept the Sailors close, forcing the Tritons to turn the ball over in Newport Harbor territory three times in the second half, twice in the red zone.
In all, San Clemente turned it over four times on the Sailors' side. Utah-bound quarterback Travis Wilson wasn't his usual self. Gyulay and Kory Cablay, the Sailors' two cornerbacks, each picked off the senior.
The Tritons' ground game stood out, despite losing starter Mike Elespuru to a knee injury in the third quarter. The senior already had 129 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries.
While 13 penalties for 145 yards on the Tritons also helped Newport Harbor, San Clemente's running game led the way with 346 yards and three touchdowns.
"Against a team like that, that's well coached, they're going to hang around and have a chance to beat you late," San Clemente Coach Jon Hamro said. "We were lucky to avoid that situation. We should have put them away a long time."
The knockout punch almost came on the opening kickoff.
San Clemente appeared to strike first. Christian Tober returned the kick 97 yards for what looked like a touchdown, but a holding call nullified the big play.
The Sailors avoided a disastrous start. Instead of being down, 7-0, they only trailed by three after San Clemente drove down the field before it settled for a 26-yard field goal.
On the Tritons' ensuing possession, Newport Harbor wasn't so fortunate. San Clemente took over in Sailor territory after forcing a quick three-and-out.
In eight plays, the Tritons covered 42 yards, the last seven on a touchdown run by Nick Pasquale. San Clemente went ahead, 10-0, early in the second quarter.
Ninety seconds later, the Tritons were in business again. Newport Harbor only gained three yards, falling way short of a first down and the Sailors punted.
The punt barely went further than the offense. The punt was partially blocked and it landed nine yards away from the line of scrimmage. San Clemente got the ball inside the Sailors' 30-yard line.
What saved the Sailors was Gyulay.
The junior intercepted a pass near the red zone and returned it 17 yards. A late-hit penalty on San Clemente put the Sailors past midfield for the first time.
The Sailors failed to capitalize. That was their story for the first 20 minutes, a stretch in which Newport Harbor totaled 13 yards of offense and just one first down.
After Elespuru's five-yard touchdown run gave San Clemente a 17-0 lead with 1:48 left before halftime, the Sailors' offense aired it out. They moved the chains for the first time since the five-minute mark in the opening quarter.
The first down came on Blower's first completed pass, a six-yard hookup with tight end Vince Aqueveque with less than a minute left to go in the half. Blower then went to Gyulay on three straight pass plays
The first was a 40-yard connection, which put the offense on the Tritons' 28. The two quickly went back to work. Gyulay caught a 12-yard pass and got out of bounds with 24 seconds left, plenty of time to get in the end zone.
On the next play, Blower hit Gyulay near the far pylon for a 16-yard touchdown. The score would be the first of two by Blower and Gyulay, but it wasn't enough to pull off an upset against San Clemente.
San Clemente 24, Newport Harbor 12
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Newport Harbor 0 - 6 - 6 - 0 – 12
San Clemente 3 - 14 - 0 - 7 – 24
SC – Miller 26 FG, 5:36.
SC – Pasquale 7 run (Miller kick), 11:55.
SC – Elespuru 5 run (Miller kick), 1:48.
NH – Gyulay 16 pass from Blower (kick failed), 0:18.
NH – Gyulay 23 pass from Blower (pass failed), 10:31.
SC – Pasquale 3 run (Miller kick), 11:07.
NH – Hasson, 19-38.
SC – Elespuru, 23-129, 1 TD.
NH – Blower, 9-17-0, 140, 2 TDs.
SC – Wilson, 12-19-2, 154.
NH – Gyulay, 5-101, 2 TDs.
SC – Tober, 1-48.