By Jeremy Balan
It’s not Turkey Day just yet, but it might as well be.
The two best teams in the Academic Athletic Association will be on the same field Saturday at School of the Arts, and the gap between the Lincoln and Mission high school football teams and the rest of the league is significant.
Entering the game that will decide the regular-season league title and the top seed in the AAA playoffs, Lincoln (7-1, 4-0) and Mission (5-2, 4-0) are both undefeated, haven’t had a AAA opponent get within double digits and have outscored league opponents by a combined margin of 288-78.
“We believe in the process to prepare for a game and we try not to make it a big deal, but you’d have to be in a closet not to know it’s a big game,” said Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno.
The results have been the same, but the manner of the victories have been very different.
Lincoln has taken down opponents with a standout defense (allowing just over 11 points per game) and a dynamic triple-option attack. Deftly operated by senior quarterback Derek Morrell, running backs Demetrius Williams and Tyree Marzetta, as well as fullback Justus Smith, have thrived in the run-heavy system.
“He has been unbelievable,” Ferrigno said of Morrell, who has impressed in the quick-decision-based triple-option that can often lend itself to mistakes. “He’s done a great job and when he has made mistakes, he’s corrected them. He’s been a leader and has done what’s within the offense to make the team better.”
The four players have combined for 1,653 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in six wins on the field (Lincoln has two forfeit wins over Marshall and Woodland Poly that were never played).
“They run that option well,” said Mission head coach Joe Albano. “Each person in that option I’ve seen do well. The fullback, running back and quarterback have all scored and they’re going to run the ball down your throat. We know what they’re going to run, we just have to be disciplined to stop it.”
As well as Morrell has played, Albano said the Bears’ goal defensively will be to get him into throwing situations. No AAA opponent has accomplished that goal yet this season, though, as Morrell has attempted just 10 passes in league play. The only opponent that has forced the Mustangs to open up the passing game is Riordan, which is the only team to beat Lincoln this season.
“Every coach will say this at this level, but we want to stop the run,” Albano said. “We want to put the ball in [Morrell’s] hands, even though he’s playing well.”
Lincoln may be the breakout team of the season (they’re only two years removed from a winless year in 2010), but the breakout player is undoubtedly Mission senior quarterback Antoine Porter.
Porter, a quarterback on the Sacred Heart Cathedral freshman team before he transferred to Mission and a junior varsity quarterback for the Bears in his sophomore year, wasn’t even sure he wanted to play the position at the beginning of the season.
Porter’s apprehension toward the position made Albano look elsewhere for a quarterback, but he just couldn’t find one.
“In the beginning of the season, he didn’t want to play quarterback,” Albano said. “He enjoyed playing in the slot last year and that’s where he’ll probably be if he goes on to play at the next level. That made me question [the decision to put him at quarterback], but I didn’t even have a backup quarterback for a while.”
Last season, Porter thrived as a slot receiver and scored the game-winning touchdown on a reverse in the AAA championship game, but Albano has been pleasantly surprised with his performance under center.
“What’s impressed me most is that he’s been able to throw the ball so well,” Albano said. “I expected him to be an athlete back there, not really a drop-back passer.”
Porter has thrown for more than 1,200 yards (mostly to solid senior wide receivers Demitrius Thibeaux and Alex Tico), has run for more than 600 yards and has accounted for 29 touchdowns. Illustrating his overall athleticism, three of those touchdowns have been off returns on punts and kickoffs.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Ferrigno said when asked what the Mustangs can do to corral Porter. “You just try to play your defense and you gotta make some plays. He’s such a dynamic kick returner and he’s playing quarterback. This is not news to any of us, because they’ve had some great athletes, but this is a special kid.”
Lowell @ Galileo, 3 p.m.
After a trouncing of Washington last week, the Cardinals (4-3, 3-1) have all but mathematically clinched a AAA playoff spot, while the Lions (2-5-1, 1-3) are fighting for their postseason lives. Galileo will still have a shot at the postseason if they lose to Lowell, but a win would put them into a tie for the fourth and final AAA playoff spot
Riordan vs. Sacred Heart Cathedral @ Kezar Stadium, 7 p.m.
The Crusaders (3-5, 0-5) and the Irish (1-7, 0-5) saw any shot at challenging the West Catholic Athletic League powers vanish long ago, but the battle for the Stanfel Cup has tremendous Central Coast Section playoff implications. While Riordan is likely already in the CCS playoffs based on the section’s point system, Sacred Heart may also be able to squeeze into the postseason with a win in the City rivalry game.
Stuart Hall vs. Pinewood (Los Altos Hills) @ Treasure Island, 1 p.m.
The Knights (4-2, 3-1) saw their Mission Trail Athletic League championship hopes fade after a disappointing loss to Woodside Priory last week, but can still end their year on a high note with a win over the Panthers (4-1, 3-1) in their season finale.
St. Ignatius @ Serra (San Mateo), 2 p.m.
The Wildcats (6-2, 4-1) still have a shot at a split WCAL title if Bellarmine slips up, but will also need to win out, and the Padres (7-1, 4-1) are far from pushovers. Both teams lost to the first-place Bells by single digits.
Marshall @ Balboa, 2 p.m.
The Bucs (1-6, 1-3) can’t have a misstep against the Phoenix (1-8, 0-5) if they want to force what could be a winner-take-all game against Galileo next week, with a AAA playoff spot on the line.