Early in the fourth quarter as the Modesto High defense turned back a dramatic Downey rally, the Panthers gathered at their bench and refocused.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Guys, we can do this,’” middle linebacker Matthew Henriques said.
The Panthers did it, all right, and for the seniors it was their first win over Downey, a ringing 42-34 upset on homecoming night.
Modesto (4-2, 2-0) may not be the most talented team in the Modesto Metro Conference, but the Panthers no doubt are the scrappiest, and they tossed the league race sideways. They force-fed the Knights (4-2, 1-1) a 14-0 deficit, dodged a 28-point third quarter by Downey and settled some old business.
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The seniors remembered their heartbreaking 35-32 loss to Downey a year ago when the Knights held on the goal line. That positioned the Knights for their third straight MMC title. But this time, in another electric climax – Modesto sacking Downey quarterback Brett Neves on the game’s final play deep in his own territory – the Panthers rang their victory bell.
“I can’t explain the feeling right now,” senior center Luke Orth said. “It’s something special.”
You can’t do that (fall behind) against a good team in a city rivalry. Credit Modesto. They had a great game plan. They played way above what we saw on film
Downey coach Jeremy Plaa
Modesto’s early energy, along with its pouncing on another batch of Downey onside kicks, won the game. That allowed the Panthers to offset a huge night by Neves, who shook off ankle and shoulder injuries to complete 30 of 50 passes for 432 yards and three touchdowns.
But before the Downey attack got off the ground, Modesto was flying. Two touchdowns within about 90 seconds of the first quarter, both lightning bolts, defined the game.
The first was an 80-yard slotback reverse by junior Markus Brady, who wrong-footed the Downey defense on a play the Panthers had not run in five years. One series later, senior Alejandro Salcedo scooped an aborted punt by Downey’s Malcome Green – he fielded a low snap and his off-balance boot caromed into the line – and ripped 30 yards into the end zone.
“I saw the ball and scooped it,” Salcedo said. “We brought a little passion tonight.”
So began an entertaining game for about 3,500 at Chuck Hughes Stadium, who watched Modesto sustain its momentum. The Panthers stayed in charge by recovering five of six Downey onside kicks – all pivotal plays – which led two short-field touchdown drives.
“You can’t do that (fall behind) against a good team in a city rivalry,” Downey coach Jeremy Plaa said. “Credit Modesto. They had a great game plan. They played way above what we saw on film.”
Modesto’s lead reached 35-12 when Downey launched its comeback on Andrew Raspo’s second touchdown, a 92-yard kickoff return. The Knights charged forward on a pair of touchdowns by Tyran Daniels, and Neves’ 2-point pass to Calvin Grover closed the margin to 35-34 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Panthers stiffened, however, and twice stopped Downey inside the Modesto 30. A furious pass rush, ignited by Henriques and end Jason Fowlkes, sacked Neves four times in the fourth quarter. Henriques also caught a 12-yard TD pass from plucky quarterback Max McCabe, who also rushed for a score.
246 The total rushing yardage for Modesto
Neves, injured last week against Beyer, took only about 40 percent of the reps in practice and didn’t know until game time that he would start.
“I couldn’t buy enough time for the plays to develop,” said Neves, whose mobility was limited. “They were bringing seven or eight guys on every play.”
Downey leaned hard on Neves’ arm because Modesto shut down the Knights’ rushing attack. Conversely, the Panthers protected their lead by rushing for 246 yards.
Modesto regained control with a ground-oriented 78-yard drive in the fourth quarter. Another Brady reverse, this one for 25 yards, and a 23-yard burst by Reggie Wilbon increased the Panthers’ confidence. Kendall McNair scored standing up from 2 yards out with 5:54 left, followed by Serafin Alberto’s sixth straight conversion kick.
The Panthers didn’t sweat being outgained 440-363 and celebrated the win in another classic staged by the city’s two oldest schools.
“If we could recover their onside kicks, we thought we could so some good things,” Modesto coach Donnie Wallace said. “I told the team after today’s rally to go out there with a chip on your shoulder and believe in each other.”