The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
It was a dog day in more ways than one Saturday at College Heights Stadium.
While temperatures for the 2017 community college football opener in San Mateo surpassed 100 degrees, the College of San Mateo Bulldogs were keen to rebrand the overbearing weather with a ’Dog day of their own.
And boy did the ’Dogs start in style.
On the season’s first play from scrimmage, CSM sophomore wide receiver Line Latu (San Mateo High School) took a reverse handoff across the right hash before lofting an option pass to a wide-open Elijah Harper, who out-legged three defenders for a 64-yard score.
“First play of the game, first play of the season, everyone is going to be antsy,” Latu said. “Let’s take advantage.”
The perfectly-executed trick play — installed by CSM offensive coordinator Bret Pollack just 30 minutes before game time, according to head coach Larry Owens — set the tone for the Bulldogs’ dominant afternoon as CSM took down Modesto Junior College 47-7.
“That’s Coach Pollack’s dream he had the night before the game,” Owens said.
For Latu — who led CSM in receiving yards last season with 615 — it was his first career pass. Later in the game, though, the sophomore returned to doing what he does best on an all-around seamless day for the CSM offense.
The Bulldogs (1-0 overall) outgained Modesto 423-271, with Latu totaling four catches for 56 yards and two touchdowns. His first TD catch, a 15-yarder with seven seconds remaining in the first half, came on an arcing pass from freshman quarterback Shawn Akina, which Latu secured with a smooth over-the-shoulder grab as he danced to stay inbounds at the front corner of the end zone to send CSM into the locker room up 28-7.
“We see that every day,” Owens said of Latu’s footwork. “To me, he’s a phenomenal athlete.”
Then, on CSM’s first possession of the second half, Akina and Latu again connected on a timing pattern, this time for a 27-yard TD with the precision loft placed nicely at Latu’s fingertips.
By this time, CSM was in firm control of the game. The fast start was something of a statement, according to Latu, after last year’s season opener at Modesto, a game the Bulldogs lost 37-27 en route to starting the year 2-3 through non-conference play.
“We had a slow start last year,” Latu said. “Let’s try to avoid that.”
Clutch defensive stand
Through Modesto’s (0-1) opening series, though, it looked like the 2017 opener might turn into a barnburner. The Pirates got off the blocks with a 14-yard run by freshman running back Daylan Thetford. Two plays later, sophomore quarterback Shawn Munoz — who, in last year’s opener, gained 288 total yards — took a keeper up the gut for 52 yards to the CSM 9-yard line.
Then CSM freshman outside linebacker Laipeli Palu (Burlingame) introduced himself to Bulldog Nation with a stellar defensive stand.
“We had a couple breakdowns and they had the big run,” Owens said. “Then they got down (in the red zone) but we tightened up. That was a huge stop to get us going.”
Palu — the third of three Palu brothers to play at CSM — had three clutch stops to force a Modesto 21-yard field goal attempt that missed wide left.
On first-and-goal from the 9, he teamed with sophomore defensive tackle Jelani Brown to peg Thetford for a 1-yard pickup. On second down, Modesto freshman Devan Bass swept to the right side and had nothing but daylight past the pursuing Palu, and nearly turned the corner. Palu, though, tripped up Bass for a mere 2-yard gain. Then, on third down, Modesto went back to Bass for a draw play, but Palu was right there to stuff the attempt for a 1-yard advance.
“We’ve been nailing that power play all week,” Palu said. “It’s one of their top plays … and since it was fourth and short, I was anticipating the power play.”
Freshman workhorses front ground attack
CSM’s offense then went to its power game in the person of freshman running back Cameron Taylor (Hillsdale). Through the first quarter, Taylor logged each of the Bulldogs’ seven carries out of the backfield. By halftime, CSM’s running backs had carried 17 times, 13 going to Taylor.
With sophomore running back Raahsan Fontenette out of action due to injury, CSM got 102 yards on 17 carries out of Taylor. The Bulldogs’ other freshman running back, Damani Sistena, enjoyed a big second half to finish with a game-high 103 yards on 14 carries.
Modesto tied it 7-7 with 2:47 to go in the first quarter when Bass found the end zone on a 2-yard draw. Then, after the Bulldogs and Pirates swapped three-and-out possessions, Taylor marched for gains of 10, 16 and 16 yards before slamming in a 4-yard run with an up-back block from freshman Bruce Fua, the first of 40 unanswered points to give CSM a 14-7 lead.
Two possessions later, CSM showcased Sistena for draw plays of 19 and 29 yards. Akina then hit St. Louis native Rajae Johnson on a 35-yard fly route to put CSM up 21-7 with 4:31 to go in the half.
Owens credited his offensive line — including a starting right side of sophomore guard Eddie Tatola (Sequoia) and sophomore tackle Adagio Lopeti (Woodside), and sophomore left guard Api Mani (Menlo-Atherton) — with establishing the rhythm of the ground game.
“Their (defensive) guys got a little tired, our guys were in a little bit better shape,” Owens said. “But the other thing is, we were sliding off blocks. But later as we went on, we did better staying on the blocks.”
CSM sophomore kicker Justin Watts — who also boomed five punts for 252 yards — added a 32-yard field goal midway through the third quarter to up CSM’s lead to 38-7.
At the start of the fourth quarter, CSM freshman defensive back Mehki Blackmon (Menlo-Atherton) came up with a fumble recovery. Four plays later, Sistena ran off tackle for a 3-yard touchdown to make it 45-7. Then with 1:11 remaining, the CSM defense notched a safety to cap the day’s scoring.
Trio of QBs still in mix
All three of CSM’s quarterbacks — Akina (St. Francis), Miles Kendrick (Valley Christian) and Matt Adamkiewicz (Christopher-Gilroy) — saw time under center. The one striking similarity all three share is all stand under 6-feet tall, with the freshmen Akina and Kendrick each 5-11, and the transfer sophomore Adamkiewicz at 5-10.
“We got what we’ve got,” Owens said.
Akina — who showed he can really throw a ball — enjoyed a near-perfect day, completing 7 of 8 passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns
CSM takes to the road this coming Saturday, travelling to Sierra College-Rocklin for a 1 p.m. kickoff.