WESTMINSTER — The game was a battle for three quarters.
Points were at a premium. Yards were at a premium. The Newport Harbor High football team was locked in a defensive struggle with Marina on Thursday night, in danger of falling out of contention for a Sunset League title.
The Sailors got their act together just in time.
Senior quarterback Cole Blower hit tight end Steve Michaelsen for a key fourth-down touchdown pass and Newport Harbor pulled away, 24-7, at Westminster High, keeping the league title hopes alive but also improving its CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division playoff chances.
Newport Harbor (5-4, 3-1 in league) can clinch a playoff berth if Edison beats Fountain Valley on Friday and Huntington Beach beats Los Alamitos.
The Sailors also put themselves in a position to win at least of a share of the league title if they can beat Edison next week, at home in the league finale on Nov. 10.
It wasn't easy against Marina (1-7-1, 0-4), which has not won a league game since 2004. The Sailors led just 10-7 entering the fourth quarter.
"They did a great job preparing their kids," Newport Harbor Coach Jeff Brinkley said. "They've struggled, obviously, this year, and George [Pascoe] and his staff did a great job getting them ready. We're coming off a big win last week [against Los Alamitos]. As much as you tell them as the coach and as an adult, sometimes young people don't get it when you're telling them these guys are going to come and play hard. They hear it from everybody else how it's going to be a walk in the park. Well, it certainly wasn't."
The fourth-down play was huge. Brinkley said he decided to go for it early in the fourth quarter, on fourth-and-two from the Marina 18-yard line, because a field goal would have kept it a one-possession game.
After a timeout, Blower rolled to his right and found Michaelsen over the middle. Michaelsen found the end zone, pushing the Sailors' lead to 17-7.
"We call that play a lot in practice, so I wasn't surprised he called that play," Michaelsen said of his only catch of the night. "It's always great to get a touchdown, especially when the game is so close like that. That's a hard pass, because he's running away and I'm coming across. He had to throw it across his body, [but] he always gets the ball to the receivers."
Marina fumbled the ball near midfield on its next possession, and Sailors sophomore lineman Ramsey Hufford recovered. That set up an eight-play scoring drive.
Seven of the plays were runs by senior Titus Hasson, including the last one from two yards out. After Christian Ochoa's conversion kick, Newport Harbor had a much more comfortable 24-7 lead midway through the quarter.
Hasson was a workhorse again, finishing with 155 yards on 29 carries. But Marina senior Alex Waked was as impressive, totaling 164 rushing yards on just 19 carries.
Waked's one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter brought Marina within a field goal. Neither team could score again until the fourth.
Newport Harbor had used a four-yard touchdown pass from Blower to Grant Frazier on its first possession, then a 34-yard field goal from Ochoa on its second possession to grab a 10-0 lead.
"The first drive we came out firing," Michaelsen said. "On the second drive we came out firing, too … These guys are always trying to get that win. You can't back down on a team like that."
Brinkley said Frazier (ankle), as well as senior receiver/cornerback Kory Cablay and his junior backup at both positions, Brandon Kula, were all injured in the game.
Newport Harbor still stepped up in the end.
A league title, which would be the Sailors' first since there was a five-way tie for first in 2008, is just one game away.
Newport Harbor 24, Marina 7
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Newport 10 – 0 – 0 – 14 — 24
Marina 0 – 7– 0 – 0 — 7
NH – Frazier 4 pass from Blower (Ochoa kick), 7:23.
NH – Ochoa 34 FG, 0:59.
Mar – Waked 1 run (Marshall kick), 4:23.
NH – Michaelsen 18 pass from Blower (Ochoa kick), 11:15.
NH – Hasson 2 run (Ochoa kick), 5:36.
NH – Hasson, 29-155, 1 TD.
Mar – Waked, 19-164, 1 TD.
NH – Blower, 12-22-0, 144, 2 TDs.
Mar – Green, 2-6-0, 3.
NH – Gyulay, 6-68.
Mar – Waked, 1-3.