LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Perhaps it was only fitting that in a game relatively absent of offense, it was a 22-yard loss that secured victory for the St. Francis High football team on Thursday night.
On fourth and sixth with three seconds left on the Paso Robles 47-yard line, Golden Knights quarterback Jared Lebowitz took the snap in shotgun formation, ran backward and ran out a 9-3 St. Francis nonleague win over the Wildcats at Friedman Field.
Though it was the Golden Knights' offense that ended the game on the field, it was most assuredly the play of the St. Francis defense that led the team to a 5-0 start.
"The defense played awesome," said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, whose team is ranked fourth in the CIF Southern Section Western Division. "It might've been ugly on one side of the ball, but it was pretty on the defensive side of it."
Perhaps the most telling statistic of just how the game went came in the fact that the Golden Knights notched three takeaways — a Jose Padilla interception off a Joey Dowling hit of the quarterback, an Austin Finton recovery of a muffed punt and a Christian Hess fumble recovery — but they were unable to cash in points off of any of the three turnovers.
But it made no matter, as Paso Robles (1-3) was held in check by another stingy St. Francis defensive effort.
"Our defense is doing so well this year," said Joey Dowling, a senior linebacker whose defense has already posted two shutouts in its first four games. "We all play as a family and as one."
Paso Robles, which defeated St. Francis, 42-28, last year, was the second team in a row that held a victory over the Golden Knights last season only to fall in this one. In their previous victory, the Golden Knights defeated West Ranch, 35-0, avenging a 35-34 loss in 2010. Going by the scoreboard alone, the biggest change has been the defense.
Dowling and Joey Velladao had sacks for a St. Francis charge that allowed the Bearcats just 179 total yards.
Paso Robles was held to 42 yards rushing, while defensive backs Hess, Travis Talianko and Billy McCreary all had clutch pass break-ups, the latter's coming on a fourth-down play just before the half. St. Francis also held on fourth and three from its own 49 with the clock ticking under two minutes, forcing an incompletion and giving the ball to its offense to run out the clock.
Offensive highlights were hard to find in general, with junior running back Daniel Kawamura scoring the game's only touchdown with 1:02 to play in the opening quarter on a four-yard pitch. A second-half McCreary field goal put the lead back to six at 9-3 after a Paso Robles field goal late in the third quarter.
"We sputtered on offense," Bonds said. "We were definitely misfiring.
"We were off. We were fortunate that our defense played so well."
In total, the offense of St. Francis amassed 257 total yards — though that did include Lebowitz' 22-yard loss.
"We're all a family," Dowling said. "If they're doing bad, then our defense is gonna pick them up.
"We've got each other's backs."
Lebowitz completed 12 of 22 passes for 116 yards, while Austin De Los Santos had 66 yards rushing in 15 carries. Kawamura had 54 yards in 13 carries and was one of five Golden Knights to rush the ball with De Los Santos, a reigning All-Area pick, noticeably gutting out a leg injury and being spelled throughout portions of the game.
"A game like that, you feel like we're letting them hang around. You gotta pat our guys on the back a little for finding a way to win," Bonds said. "We gotta draw on the positives."
One huge positive is that St. Francis hosts its Mission League opener next week against Harvard-Westlake with a 5-0 record, which is a far cry from the 3-2 tally in which it began league with last year.
"We just want to win league," Dowling said. "We just want it so bad — this is the year."
But as consistently terrific as the defense has been, Bonds knows that the offense needs to step its game up if league success is to be had.
"If we continue to play like that on offense, we're gonna have a tough time in league," he said. "We gotta be ready to play those guys next week."