Downey High School football coach Jeremy Plaa wants to steal possessions. He uses the onside kick to feed his high-octane offense.
The Knights don’t shy away from the special-teams play, either. It’s as much a part of their identity as the four vertical routes that define their passing attack.
By proxy, Plaa isn’t just stealing possessions from his opponents. He’s also stealing their practice time, too.
Modesto’s first-year head coach, Donnie Wallace, has discovered that this week as he prepares for this annual clash of the Modesto Metro Conference titans.
These games have decided who wins the championship or the co-championship. We don’t want the kids to think it’s the biggest game of the season, but it’s a big game.
Donnie Wallace, Modesto coach, on the rivalry with Downey
Large-school No. 6 Downey (4-1, 1-0) has won at least a share of three consecutive titles, while the Panthers (3-2, 1-0) earned a split of the 2013 crown with a 46-19 rout of the Knights.
Downey won the title outright last fall, edging the Panthers by one game in the standings. Really, the gap was much closer than that.
Modesto’s offense stalled at the 4-yard line in a 35-32 loss at Downey. Former MMC co-MVP Nate Phillips threw low and short to Kendall McNair at the goal line as time expired, sealing the victory for the Knights.
“These games have decided who wins the championship or the co-championship,” Wallace said. “We don’t want the kids to think it’s the biggest game of the season, but it’s a big game.”
The difference this time around could come down to a squirrelly kick. Modesto has had to rework its practice schedule this week, building in an extra 15 minutes at the start to rehearse the onside kick and its many variations.
“We have to be ready for it,” Wallace said. “They might do it four or five times a game. We’ve been practicing; we’ve been working on the different angles.”
Even with all the dress rehearsal, Wallace understands this about the onside kick: All those reps may not matter.
“It can take a funny hop,” Wallace said. “We can work on it all we want, but it all depends on the hop.”
The Panthers’ hopes are lifted by an improving special-teams unit. Markus Brady returned the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown in last week’s 42-0 victory over Johansen.
Brady likely won’t get that same opportunity on Friday evening on the fast surface at Chuck Hughes Stadium, but his long return reassures Wallace that his team’s focus on special teams is where it needs to be.
The Downey football team uses the onside kick as a weapon at every opportunity. Coach Jeremy Plaa will gamble on the squirrelly kick, realizing it may only work a fraction of the time. Still, if he’s able to steal a few possessions during a game, that gives his explosive offense more opportunity to score. And for the record: the Knights are averaging 42.6 points per game, tops in the Stanislaus District.
“During the preseason we’re so worried about just getting stuff in,” Wallace said. “Now that we’re getting into league, we need to shore up our special teams, and it showed in last week’s kickoff return. Marcus picked it up around the 20 and went right down the sideline. He got some nice blocks.
“We know that won’t happen this week.”
Downey quarterback Brett Neves, who left last week’s 42-6 victory over Beyer with injuries to his non-throwing shoulder and ankle, is doubtful for Friday’s game.
Neves was in uniform at Wednesday’s practice. He wore a brace on his ankle and shoulder, and needed to be helped out of his pads. Senior Tyler Lehikainen took most of the snaps and will start if Neves – the Stanislaus District’s top passer – is scratched.
Right now, Modesto is preparing for Neves, a dual-threat quarterback averaging 258.6 passing yards per game.
“Whoever is back there will come out and do what they do, so we have to ready,” Wallace said. “We have a little bit of tape on the kid (Lehikainen). They’ll run the same stuff, so it doesn’t matter who is back there.
“We haven’t told the kids much and they haven’t asked.”
Modesto has struggled some against the district’s passing attacks.
Ceres quarterback Chris Lubinsky threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener, and Patterson’s Kevin Todd completed 76.5 percent of his passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-28 victory over the Panthers on Sept. 11.
Lubinksy and Todd are the district’s second- and fourth-ranked passers, respectively.
258.6 The average number of passing yards per game by Downey junior Brett Neves, who is questionable for Friday’s game with Modesto because of an ankle injury.
Offensively, the Panthers are boosted by the return of running back Reggie Wilbon, who missed one game with an injury.
Wallace hopes to control the clock and negate Downey’s team speed with heavy doses of Wilbon and McNair behind a young but fast-maturing offensive line.
“Defensively, they fly and swarm to the ball. We have to maintain blocks and set things up,” Wallace said of the Knights’ underrated defense, a group led by its linebacking corps and safety Tyran Daniels. “If we get with someone, we have to stick to them.
“Their whole group, they fly. We’re hoping to run the ball and slow the game down that way. We’ll throw when we need to. The key will be to keep them off-balance, so they can’t just pin their ears back and fly all over the place.”
This Week’s Games
Modesto Metro Conference
Beyer at Gregori, 7 p.m.
Enochs at Johansen , 7:30 p.m.
Modesto at Downey, 7:30 p.m.
Valley Oak League
Central Catholic at Lathrop, 7:15 p.m.
Manteca at Weston Ranch, 7:15 p.m.
Oakdale at Kimball, 7:15 p.m.
Sierra at East Union, 7 p.m.
Western Athletic Conference
Central Valley at Patterson, 7 p.m.
El Capitan at Pacheco, 7 p.m.
Livingston at Ceres, 7 p.m.
Mother Lode League
Calaveras at Sonora, 7:30 p.m.
Linden at Amador, 7:30 p.m.
Summerville at Bret Harte, 7:30 p.m.
Delhi at Orestimba, 7:30 p.m.
Gustine at Waterford, 7:30 p.m.
Le Grand at Ripon Christian, 7:30 p.m.
Mariposa County at Denair, 7:30 p.m.
Central California Athletic Alliance
Sierra Ridge/ROP at Big Valley Christian, 7 p.m.
Millennium vs. Stone Ridge Christian, 7 p.m.
Galt at Riverbank, 7 p.m.
Merced at Lincoln, 7:15 p.m.
Modesto Christian at Edison, 7:15 p.m.
Buhach Colony at St. Mary’s, 7:15 p.m.
Fresno at Atwater, 7:30 p.m.
Pitman at North Salinas, 7:30 p.m.
Central California Athletic Alliance
Turlock Christian vs. Brookside Christian at Lincoln-Stockton, 7 p.m.