By Mitch Stephens
Special to Palo Alto Online Sports
CARSON -- Palo Alto High School's football team took a "we have nothing to lose" approach into Friday's CIF Division I Bowl game.
And to the surprise of almost all, the Vikings didn't, stunning the nation's No. 4 team Centennial-Corona, 15-13, before about 4,000 rain-drenched fans at the Home Depot Center.
"The only ones who believed this was possible was us and the coaching staff," Palo Alto senior strong safety and tight end T.J. Braff. "For many of us, this is our last high school football game. None of us could have scripted it any better."
The Vikings (14-0) executed defensive coordinator Jake Halas' defensive scheme to perfection, got spectacular touchdown catches by Davante Adams and Maurice Williams and took advantage of Centennial's first sloppy and sub-par game to record their first undefeated season since 1963 (9-0). Paly also went 10-0 in 1950.
The shocking finish elevated Palo Alto to No. 13 in the Freeman Rankings on MaxPreps. The Vikings were listed No. 19 in the final Xcellent 25 national rankings, also on MaxPreps, as well as No. 4 in the state behind state champs De La Salle and Folsom and Open Division runnerup Servite.
Palo Alto senior quarterback Christoph Bono (13-of-23, 215 yards) completed first-half touchdown passes of 11 and 80 yards to Adams and Williams, respectively, en route to a 15-0 lead and held off a second-half rally led by 6-foot-5, 225-pound quarterback Michael Eubank, who accounted for almost 3,900 yards and 40 touchdowns coming into the game.
"We've been the underdog all season," Palo Alto receiver Maurice Williams, who had the key touchdown of the game, an 80-yard reception with 1:21 left in the first half, and partially blocked kicker Ezequiel Rivera's 42-yard field goal with 30.4 seconds to play to seal it. "And we were never a bigger underdog than tonight. This wasn't just a great way to end the season. It was the perfect way to end it."
The Vikings' defense bent all night against what many considered the nation's top offense – Centennial finished with 460 yards, down from its average of 535 – but toughened up in the red zone, twice holding on downs inside the 10 on clutch tackles by linebacker Michael Cullen on Eubank.
Braff and linebacker Michael Cullen, who led the team with 10 tackles each along with Stanford-bound defensive end Kevin Anderson, also combined to bring down Eubank on a 2-point conversion try with 4:14 left after the quarterback scored on a 33-yard run to close to 15-13.
"I was suppose to take the pitch, but I saw he was going to take it so I went after him," said Braff, who also forced a fumble and recovered two fumbles. "(Cullen) was awesome all night. Our entire defense was. We all just came in playing loose like we had nothing to lose."
Said Palo Alto head coach Earl Hansen said about his defense:
"Discipline, discipline, discipline. Those guys just played their butts off and came through when it counted most."
Halas, a Southern California native and a distant nephew of legendary NFL coach George Halas, said he slept little trying to prepare against a team that averaged 53 points and 536 yards per game coming in.
Centennial managed three 100-yard rushers, including Eubank (164 yards on 16 carries), but the Huskies (14-1) mustarded only two second-half touchdowns.
"We had two weeks to prepare for these guys and watched more film than you can imagine," Halas said. "We have smart kids who can make adjustments, but make no mistake, we have kids who are tough as nails."
They had to be to knock off three consecutive favored private-school West Catholic Athletic League opponents in the Central Coast Section playoffs heading into Friday's game.
And they had to in order to keep Centennial's no huddle, spread, and Oregon lookalike offense out of the end zone seven of nine possessions.
"That was a great team we just beat," Williams said. "If we would have played them five quarters instead of four, they might have got us. But like we've done all season, we proved people wrong."
Centennial, which felt slighted that it wasn't picked into the state's ultimate game, the Open Division contest, was presumably going to make a statement and take it out on Palo Alto. Instead, the Huskies struggled, right down to the game's first and ultimately deciding points.
A shotgun punt snap – Centennial attacks via the shotgun every play – sailed over the head of long quarterback Eubank, who landed on it in the end zone, giving Palo Alto a 2-0 lead with 8:41 left in the first quarter.
"That set the tone," Centennial coach Matt Logan said. "It just wasn't our night. Every time we got something going, we'd have some sort of breakdown. I give (Palo Alto) all the credit. They were more ready to play than we were."
Centennial had 11 penalties for 112 yards including holding calls that wiped out a touchdown run and a 40-yard pass play. The Huskies also had three unsportsmanlike penalties.
"We didn't tackle well," Logan said. "We turned the ball over. We had horrible penalties at the worst time. Those are simply our mistakes that we had control on. Unfortunately it came the wrong week to do it."
After the safety, the Vikings made it 9-0 on a beautiful 15-yard TD pass to Adams in the back of the end zone midway through the second quarter. Bono rolled right and fired a strike to a leaping Adams, who came down hard and injured his ankle but later returned.
"Christoph made a perfect throw," Adams said. "It was a painful injury, but it was definitely worth it. There was no way I was dropping that thing."
The two connected on a 22-yard completion the play before when Bono escaped a strong rush, rolled left and found Adams, who made another leaping catch.
"We have great receivers and we have guys who believe in one another," Bono said.
Those two catches paled to Palo Alto's next score an 80-yard bomb to the team's other dynamic wideout Williams.
Bono threw the ball as far as could, Williams came back to the pass and wrestled it away from a defender, then sprinted from the right sideline to the left pylon, making it 15-0 (the Vikings missed a 2-point conversion) with 1:21 left in the half.
The score came two plays after Palo Alto held on downs at the Vikings 5, making it a virtual 13-point swing.
"I just out-worked the dude for the ball," Williams said. "I wasn't going to be denied. We weren't going to be denied. Nobody believed it but us. It's a great feeling."
Especially great for Palo Alto backers, considering the Vikings' girls volleyball team won the state Division I championship with a five-game win over Long Beach Poly. Bono's sister Sophia was on the volleyball team.
"It's a great time to be a Viking," Bono said.
Mitch Stephens is a national columnist for MaxPreps.com