For the second time in a month, a Hillsdale High School football game was decided by an incomplete pass.
This time, however, the Knights came out of the winning end, holding off Sacred Heart 20-13 Friday night in San Mateo.
In its season opener, Hillsdale’s 2-point conversion attempt fell incomplete with 20 seconds to play in a 14-13 loss to Terra Nova.
Friday night, after the Knights had taken the lead on a Liam Smith quarterback keeper with just under two minutes to play, Sacred Heart Prep drove to the Knights’ 1-yard line with under 15 seconds to play.
Out of timeouts and the clock running, the Gators were whistled for a false start, moving them back to the 6. Quarterback Jack Herrell took the snap and threw an out pass at the goal line.
The ball was intended for Zach Freire, but Hillsdale defensive back Luca Belforte, who had him blanketed, broke up the pass as time expired to set off a wild celebration for the Knights.
“That was an outstanding football game,” said Hillsdale head coach Mike Parodi. “(It’s) kind of why you sign up to do this.”
It was only appropriate the game was decided on a broken up pass as the game was a defensive slugfest. But it was the Knights who came up with the big plays when they were needed.
“Hillsdale really gave us a heck of a game. They played really hard,” said SHP head coach Mark Grieb. “We gave them a few (opportunities) that gave them good field position.”
Their first opportunity SHP gave up came on its first drive of the game when a fake punt was stopped short and eventually resulted in Hillsdale’s first touchdown of the game.
The last opportunity the Gators gave the Knights proved to be the backbreaker. After stopping Hillsdale on downs at the Gators’ 30, SHP had the ball and 4:40 left in the fourth quarter.
SHP coughed the ball up on the first play of drive, with Hillsdale recovering it and putting the Knights in business at the SHP 35.
Smith, who finished the game completing 14-of-19 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns, drove the Knights to the Gators’ 2, the key plays being a 16-yard completion to Zach Leighton, — who caught eight passes for 104 yards and a score — along with a 13-yard run from Josh Violette.
When Smith bulled his way into the end zone from a yard out with 1:50 left, it appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for the Gators.
“Their QB seemed to make play all night,” Grieb said.
But the Gators did not go quietly. The ensuing kickoff was kicked out of bounds and SHP took over at the 45. After nearly getting picked off, Herrell dropped back and lofted a perfectly placed ball to receiver Luke Renert down the right sideline to the Hillsdale 4-yard line.
Two plays and a false start later, Belforte’s effort finally sealed the win for the Knights.
While Smith and Leighton have developed into one of the best pass-catching combos in the Peninsula Athletic League, it was the return of Violette to the Knights’ offensive backfield that helped them to the win. Violette, who missed the last two weeks with injury, gained 76 tough yards on 19 carries, almost all of which came between the tackles. It was enough to keep the Gators’ defense honest — which was a big deal as SHP linebacker Andrew Latu was in the Hillsdale backfield early and often.
“It was great to have [Violette] back. He’s thick and strong. It allows us to do some things differently,” Parodi said. “We needed to get some thick yards tonight.”
While the Knights got just enough offense to pull out the win, it was their defense that gave Hillsdale the chance. They shut out the Gators for three quarter, allowing a pair of second-quarter touchdowns.
After SHP gain 142 yards of offense in the first half, the Knights gave up only 68 yards over the final two quarters. Friere led the Gators with 58 yards rushing, while Herrell completed 9-of-14 passes for 138 yards.
Hillsdale seemed ready to go against the Gators as the Knights took the opening kickoff and methodically used 13 plays and more than seven minutes off the clock, driving from their own 30 to the SHP 14 before turning the ball over on downs.
The Knights defense forced a three and out on the Gators’ first possession and when they stopped SHP’s fake punt attempt, needed six plays to cover 23 yards. It was capped by a Smith-to-Caden Wellwood 11-yard score for a 6-0 Hillsdale lead.
SHP took the ensuing kick and got its offense in gear as the Gators went on a seven-play, 65-yard drive that culminated with a 2-yard run from Luis Medoza. A blocked extra point kept the game tied at 6-all.
The Knights came right back to retake the lead. Starting from their own 29, Hillsdale moved to the SHP 15 on seven plays and on the eighth, Smith hooked up with Leighton for a 15-yard score and a 13-6 Hillsdale lead.
The Hillsdale defense then stepped up, stopping a SHP drive at their own 11, but the Gators got the ball back following a three-and-out by the Knights.
Taking over at their own 45, the Gators needed five plays to tie the game at 13, with Herrell finding Carter Shaw with a 27-yard scoring pass with 16 seconds left in the first half.
“I don’t think we ever played great tonight,” Parodi said. “We played good enough and then at the end, played good enough to win.”