LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — In an intersectional matchup with Venice High that was predicted to be a shootout, the most potent weapon in the St. Francis football team's arsenal turned out to be a fire extinguisher.
Setting a tone of defensive dominance from the first quarter, the Golden Knights effectively cooled off the Gondoliers' high-powered offense to pick up a 31-13 nonleague win on Friday night at Friedman Field.
"I was so proud of our defense," said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, whose team improved to 3-0. "Just the three and outs early in the game were huge against a high-powered offense. They did a great job. I commend our defensive staff for a great game plan and our guys for going out and executing it."
When not bottled up completely, the Gondoliers' offense was spilling all over the field. St. Francis benefitted from three fumbles and an interception of quarterback Dean Sarabia, who was held to just 124 yards passing through the first three quarters before finishing with 228.
But by the fourth quarter, the Gondoliers, who finished with just 88 yards rushing as a team, were simply running out of time.
The final highlight of the defense's performance was a stand on fourth and 13 at its own 27-yard line at the 10:21 mark of the fourth quarter that would set up a 78-yard St. Francis scoring drive to essentially put the game on ice at 31-7 with just under seven minutes in the fourth quarter.
Austin De Los Santos rushed for 40 of his team-high 85 rushing yards on the drive, which was completed with a 16-yard pass from Brett Nelson to Travis Talianko.
"Easily, the defense made our game," said Nelson, who completed 12 of 18 attempts for 228 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair to Talianko, who had 105 yards receiving on seven catches. "We expect the offense to operate very well and the defense just stepped it up for us tonight. We got great field position and momentum changes all night and that's what gave us the win."
While its only two lapses led to Venice's only two scores — a 50-yard gain on a slant from Sarabia to Frank Murray with 1:11 left in the first quarter and a short strike over the middle from Sarabia to Murray that went for 57 yards with 5:13 to play in the game — the St. Francis defense started strong and never relented.
After St. Francis fumbled on its opening drive, the defense made a stop that led to the first score of the game, a 32-yard pass from Nelson to a wide-open Christian Hess to make it 7-0 with 6:51 to play in the first quarter.
An interception by Parker Nieves on the ensuing possession gave St. Francis the ball back, but then Nelson threw his only pick moments later.
Another three-and-out possession for Venice followed, this one resulting in a 15-yard punt that set up St. Francis with a short field and a 14-0 lead after De Los Santos rumbled into the end zone from five yards out at the 1:03 mark of the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter, St. Francis' Brian Basic recovered a Venice fumble at the Golden Knights' 34-yard line to put out Venice's first real threat. St. Francis then took a 21-0 lead at the 6:06 mark of the second quarter.
Venice got the ball to begin the second half, but once again fumbled on its own 25-yard line. Andrew Jackson recovered for St. Francis and soon the Golden Knights led 24-7 on a 41-yard field goal by Ian Sternau.
"We knew they liked to throw kick hitches to the outside guys, so we just said, 'We've gotta break down and make tackles and we gotta pressure their quarterback,'" said Bonds, who also got a fumble recovery from Keith Enterante on a strip by Tyler Marona in the third quarter. "We forced some bad throws, got some sacks and all of that, so we were happy with our defense."