Always a fan of giving shout-outs to his coaching staff, College of San Mateo head coach Tim Tulloch quickly lauded special teams coach Matt Dovenberg following Saturday’s 35-12 victory over Modesto Junior College.

The Bulldogs opened the day with an 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by sophomore Terrell Carter, the first of CSM’s two scoring runbacks. Sophomore Jermaine Jackson added an 89-yard kickoff return for a TD on the first time the Bulldogs touched the ball in the second half.

“Special teams is an important part of the game,” Carter said. “People don’t really realize that. It can change momentum so quick.”

The win for No. 2-ranked Bulldogs (5-0 overall) is their fifth straight to start the year, and solidifies them as the top-ranked team in Northern California. Modesto (4-1) entered play ranked No. 3 in the state.

“I’m happy,” Tulloch said. “I think it was a team win. The way we started the game, what we did on (special) teams, it’s nice to start 7-0 with a big return.”

The Pirates, though, were a shadow of themselves and the high-powered offense that saw them win their first four games of the season. Modesto’s two top skill players — quarterback Danny Velasquez and running back Michael Ramos — were withheld from the starting lineup due to injury.

Ramos is out six weeks with a broken fibula and didn’t see the field at all. Velasquez is week-to-week with a leg injury, and did take a few snaps in the second half. But the dual-threat quarterback — who earlier in the week, Tulloch said may be the best athlete in Northern California — gave way to backup quarterback Brett Neves for most of the day.

“It’s like a whole different offense,” Modesto head coach Mike Stivers said. “It’s really hard to figure out because you’ve got running back who haven’t really got a chance. They’ve only had a couple carries this season. And then [Velasquez] is a dual-threat guy, and that’s how our offense is, [Neves] is more of a pocket guy. So, we really kind of struggled to find the right calls to fit him based upon what San Mateo was doing.”

CSM was dealt two injuries of its own to balance the matchup, however, specifically in the linebacker corps. The Bulldogs were without middle linebacker Tevita Teitavake and whip linebacker Sam Kanongata’a. The injuries thrust two freshmen into starting action: Sione Taufalele and Angel Asiasi, while sophomore Sione Halaapiapi moved from middle linebacker to the whip position.

“We were expecting [Velasquez and Ramos] to come in,” Halaapiapi said. “We were ready to shut them down. Coming into the game, we didn’t see them starting. That was a big relief on our side of the ball. Then we just had to do our job and execute.”

CSM’s biggest defensive swing came with a takeaway at the start of the second quarter.

Modesto fired right back after the Bulldogs’ opening kickoff return. The Pirates drove 75 yards on 12 plays, including three third-down conversions, before running back Isaac Sharp scored on a 1-yard blast. Modesto’s point-after try failed, keeping the Bulldogs on top 7-6.

After Modesto’s defense stopped two consecutive CSM possessions, the Pirates went on the march again, advancing to the Bulldogs’ 16. Sharp followed with a run through the middle that looked as though it might give his team the lead, but the ball was stripped at the 1-yard line with CSM sophomore Trey Smith recovering the fumble in the end zone for a critical turnover.

“The strip fumble is huge because if they go in and score right there, it’s a whole lot of momentum,” Tulloch said. “We preach effort, we preach running to the ball, and we preach trying to force turnovers. So, you never know when it’s going to come. And that one swung the momentum, big time.”

CSM quarterback Luke Bottari then seized on the momentum, needing just two plays to cover 80 yards for a score. Bottari opened with a 22-yard pass to Carter. Then Bottari connected with Jackson on a 53-yard slant over the middle for a touchdown, giving the Bulldogs a 14-6 lead.

“The up-front guys did a great job,” Tulloch said of CSM’s offensive line: tackles Nick Yuferov and TJ Iafeta, guards Sam Langi and Ray Cabral-Artero, and center Zach Barnao, along with the sniper sensibilities as a blitz blocker in tight end Jason Lloyd.

“Because, here’s the thing … they’re a big, stunting blitz team,” Tulloch said. “And to keep Luke upright protecting him, to give him time, was huge.”

CSM got a quick stop and scored again just before halftime, marching 64 yards on 15 plays, capped by a 3-yard scoring run by Darrell Page.

Modesto opened the second half with its second score, a 3-yard TD run by Sharp. But Jackson took the momentum right back for CSM with his kickoff return to up the lead to 28-12. Then the Bulldogs’ defense got in on the scoring.

Two plays into Modesto’s next possession, Smith came up with his second turnover of the day, an interception over the middle he returned for a 28-yard pick-6.

Modesto out-gained CSM 348-286 in total offense.

Jackson finished with 221 all-purpose yards (60 rushing, 72 receiving and 89 on kickoff returns). Carter added 186 all-purpose yards (77 receiving, 10 on punt returns and 99 on kickoff returns).

Next up: CSM has a bye week followed by its Bay 6 Conference opener Saturday, Oct. 19 at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“I think we have a lot of work to do,” Tulloch said. “I think each team we’ve played has presented a different challenge. Each team showed us some things that we need to work on over the bye week and getting us ready for conference. And, really, they are preparation games for what’s next. Everything that comes in the Bay 6 Conference is what matters.”

As it stands, the Bulldogs will be without two defensive players as Asiasi, and sophomore defensive back Bennett Williams, the team tackling leader, were each disqualified for personal fouls, making them ineligible for the following game.

“If we review the tape and feel like it wasn’t the proper call, then we’ll appeal it,” Tulloch said. “But there’s a process. Our guys are coached to tackle within the guidelines.”

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