SAN ANTONIO – Things didn’t look too good for the O’Connor football team at halftime of last Saturday’s game against Johnson, which pushed around the Panthers for the first two quarters.
But the game turned out to be a tale of two halves.
O’Connor scored 24 unanswered points to rally for a 38-24 victory that seemed improbable after the Jaguars piled up 244 yards in the first two quarters and led 24-14 at intermission. Johnson asserted itself early, jumping out to a 14-0 lead after one quarter against an opponent that appeared hung over from its emotional 42-30 victory against Steele the previous week.
But the Panthers snapped out of their funk in the third quarter and rode a sterling performance by its defense, which did not allow a single yard in the second half, to improve to 4-0.
So, what happened to jump-start the O’Connor?
“Our coaches made some adjustments and kind of got us, I feel, in a little bit better position to make plays,” head coach David Malesky said. “And then our kids realized that we’d made some mistakes in the first half.
“We eliminated the mistakes, made a couple of adjustments, and then we went out and had some success early. That kind of helped get the fire going, and then our offense started putting points on the board. It wasn’t just one specific thing. It was a combination of a lot of things.”
Malesky said he’s never been associated with a defense that allowed an opponent zero yardage in a half.
“That is kind of unheard of,” he said. “The biggest thing I think our kids are doing a great job of is running to the football. I mean, it really is. That’s easy to say, but they really do get after it. They have a passion about getting to the football and making tackles.”
The unit is led by defensive coordinator Ricky Stade, who is in his second season at O’Connor.
“He’s done a great job and implemented a few things to what we’re doing,” Malesky said. “It’s been a good deal.”
Malesky was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator for eight seasons before succeeding Danny Padron as head coach in 2010.
O’Connor plays Taft (0-4) in its last nondistrict game at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Farris Stadium. Favored to win Zone B in District 28-6A, the Panthers are No. 2 in the KENS 5 area Class 6A rankings.
O’Connor managed to shut down a potent Johnson offense in the second half despite playing without defensive back Millard Bradford and lineman Marcus Guerra, who missed the game with injuries.
Bradford, a nickelback in the secondary, has scholarship offers from TCU, Arizona State, Purdue, Texas State and Tulane. Another defensive starter, senior cornerback Zaire Taylor, has committed to Houston.
Johnson gained 108 yards on the ground and 136 passing in the first half before the Panthers slammed the door shut. The Jaguars had only one first down in the final two quarters, and wound up with zero yardage in the second half after senior tackle Brian Reid got a sack on the last play of the game.
“We just came out and did what we had to do,” Zaire said. “We came out in the first half thinking it was going to be a pretty easy game, but that’s not what it came down to. Johnson is a great team. We came out and had a good second half. We knew that we were the better team at the end of the second half.”
Senior outside linebacker Donoven McKnight also talked about the Panthers’ tepid start.
“We just came out really slow the first half, and coaches really got on us,” McKnight said. “That’s not how we play. We play way better than that. We just talked to each other and said we have each other’s back, and let’s go do what we always do, and we did that the second half.”
O’Connor is allowing 23 points and 304.2 yards a game, 94.7 rushing and 209.5 passing. The Panthers beat MacArthur (49-24) and Churchill (45-14) before defeating Steele and Johnson the past two weeks.
“Going into the season, we knew we were going to be extremely young in a lot of places,” Malesky said of his defensive unit. “Probably the biggest thing is we’ve had a lot of young kids, and when I say young, kids that didn’t have varsity experience, that have stepped up and really turned in really good play for us.
“We’ve been pretty consistent from week in and week out. I don’t feel like right now we’re playing our best football. We’re still making some mistakes that we need to get ironed out tomorrow night before we get ready for district play next week.”
Other defensive starters for the Panthers are junior outside linebacker Conner Callihan, junior middle linebacker Gabe Diaz, sophomore nose guard Pryson Greer, senior cornerback Renaldo Mason, senior end Diamond Rios, junior free safety Grant Rustan and senior strong safety Evan Villastrigo.
Guerra, a senior, is part of the rotation on the defensive line. Diaz, Greer, Guerra, Rios did not have any varsity experience heading into the season.
“Every year you’re going to have some kids that you weren’t either expecting or you weren’t really necessarily thinking that they were going to be really good players,” Malesky said. “It is fun. It is neat to be able to watch them. I wish these kids would tell me like back in January, ‘Hey, coach, I’m going to be a really good player.’”
Such notice undoubtedly would ease Malesky’s anxiety in the offseason.
“Exactly,” he said with a smile.