PALO ALTO — Two plays into the second quarter of the 2017 season, Gunn found itself reeling, which is not unfamiliar territory.
This is a football program which outscored its opponent once in each 2013 and 2014, never in 2015 and twice in 2016.
That’s four wins in four years.
But something changed the rest of the way, as the Titans nearly pulled off a comeback in a 28-25 loss to Soquel that came down to the wire Friday night at home in Palo Alto.
“That was amazing,” said Gunn senior DJ Barnes, the lone team captain. “I’ve never seen a game like that since I’ve been here.”
Gunn (0-1) dug itself into a hole in the season opener as the defense couldn’t get off the field in the first quarter.
It turns out Soquel (1-0) managed to run 29 plays in the span that it took the Titans to throw two passes, beginning with a 57-yard touchdown to junior Solomone Paletua.
“I was happy about that,” Gunn quarterback Hudson Alexander said. “And then the next pass was a pick. I didn’t step into that one, I know what happened. I’ll look at film and get better off of it.”
“That’s the beauty of having tape,” said Gunn coach Tony Kelly, in his second year at the helm. “We’re coming in tomorrow and we’re going to watch some tape. Lick our wounds a little bit because of lot guys are beaten up, dinged up — and they won’t know that until tomorrow until they try to get out of bed.”
Much of the punishment came from a ground attack by the Knights that amassed 275 yards, with most of the damage coming courtesy of 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior Nolan Maas (26 carries, 192 yds, 3 TDs).
“We’ll get after it next week,” said Alexander, one of many two-way players virtually incapable of taking plays off. “Run a lot at practice, because they clearly run us until the wheels off.”
Unable to control the line of scrimmage for most of the night, Gunn opted to air it out by going with five wide receivers and an empty backfield except for one play — a 3-yard loss on first-and-goal from the 1.
This put a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Alexander, who hadn’t played QB since freshman year in 2014.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Alexander said. “I’ve been waiting for this for a while, so I’m just glad I got to be out here with my guys.”
Trailing 21-6 just 49 seconds into the second quarter, Alexander and Co. went to work by engineering a 15-play, 63-yard drive that featured a trio of fourth-down conversions, including a 20-yard fade into the end zone that Barnes pulled out of the grasp of a defensive back in front of the pylon with 3:46 left in the half.
In a case of déjà vu, the Titans embarked on another 15-play, 63-yard drive out of the locker room in the third quarter that also culminated in a fourth-down TD pass — this one a 3-yard throw to Paletua.
“In the beginning, they were just pushing us around,” Barnes said. “We put up a fight in the second half and we pushed back a little bit.”
“I was proud of that,” Kelly said. “They kept battling. There was some good stuff that I saw on that drive, which I was really happy with my guys. I just wish that we could’ve been a little more prepared defensively.”
The Gunn defense gained confidence when a sack by Quinn Treadway late in the first half helped to keep Soquel out of the end zone for the first time. The Titans also forced another turnover on downs after cutting the deficit to 21-18 in the third quarter.
Barnes, who finished with 11 catches for 131 yards, was targeted often in the second half and midway through the fourth quarter helped get his team to the brink of the red zone.
On third down, Alexander scrambled to his right and found a wide open Liam Teare, only a freshman, for a 29-yard TD with 5:36 left in the game.
Suddenly, it was Gunn 25, Soquel 21.
“My freshman over there Liam, he’s the future of Gunn football,” Alexander said. “Wait on it.”
Alexander’s heroics turned into a stat-stuffing night: 18 of 35 for 295 yards and four TDs with one interception, plus 39 rushing yards.
It just wasn’t meant to be, as the Knights extended the ensuring drive with the aide of three penalties, including an offsides on fourth down.
A 10-yard scamper by Maas with 1:19 left proved to be the finishing touch.
“In the end,” Barnes said, “it just came down who wanted it more and who had more numbers.”
“If we can stay healthy with the kids we have, the minimal numbers, we’ll be able to compete with anybody in our league and anybody that we play,” Kelly said. “But I’ve lost three kids tonight and I’m down to 19 now. I probably have to pull up a couple of frosh-soph kids just to practice. But it is what it is.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Not only is Kelly aware of this, so is his captain.
“Hopefully after I graduate, which will be this year,” Barnes said, “people will continue to buy into what coach is trying to do here and change the culture of the whole program and bring it back to where we used to be.”
Friday night, even if it was another loss, felt like a step in the right direction.
“It’s a confidence booster,” Alexander said of the second-half comeback. “It means we were close.”
Soquel 14 7 0 7 — 28
Gunn 6 6 6 7 — 25
S — Maas 1 run (Del Real kick), 7:28
G — Paletua 57 pass from Alexander (kick failed), 7:09
S — Maas 1 run (Del Real kick), 3:09
S — Keller 1 run (Del Real kick), 11:11
G — Barnes 20 pass from Alexander (run failed), 3:46
G — Paletua 3 pass from Alexander (kick failed), 2:05
G — Teare 29 pass from Alexander (Teare kick), 5:36
S — Maas 10 run (Del Real kick), 1:19
RUSHING—Soquel, Maas 26-192, Del Bonta-Smith 4-48, Keller 6-27, Del Real 3-16, Budasz 1-1, Team 2-(-9). Gunn, Alexander 15-39, Paletua 1-(-3).
PASSING—Soquel, Del Real 7-15-0 121. Gunn, Alexander 18-35-1 295.
RECEIVING—Soquel, Dudek 4-64, Budasz 2-34, Blanke 1-23. Gunn, Barnes 11-131, Paletua 4-78, Teare 2-39, Howard 1-47.
Records: Soquel 1-0, Gunn 0-1.