Palo Alto’s season opener Saturday at St. Ignatius provided a demonstration of how much has changed from last year and how much work needs to be done in order to achieve the kind of success everyone involved with the program wants.
The prolific offense of 2018 was nowhere to be seen as Paly suffered a 23-7 defeat at the hands of a team they beat 21-14 in last year’s opener.
The debut of Kevin Cullen at quarterback certainly didn’t go as planned. Three times in the first half he was hit as he released the ball with the pass fluttering up in the air, ripe for the picking. And on one occasion that’s just what happened as SI linebacker Setaleki Netane came down with the ball and ran 13 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead.
Cullen, a hard-hitting first-team all-league safety on defense, dishes out plenty of punishment in that role. He wasn’t supposed to be the recipient of numerous hard hits playing quarterback on offense.
So what about the lack of pass protection?
“It’s not just one thing,’’ Palo Alto coach Nelson Gifford said. “It’s the reads, the routes, I’m not going to put the blame on anybody. If the offense wasn’t ready to play that’s on me.’’
Paly responded with a defensive touchdown of its own. On third and 9 from its own 18 St. Ignatius dropped back to pass. Jurgen Dittrich broke through and hit the quarterback, causing a fumble that Lou Passarello picked up on the 5-yard line and ran into the end zone. Alex Wang’s extra point gave Paly a 7-6 lead with 3:50 to go in the first half.
But it didn’t last long.
St. Ignatius responded with its first and only sustained drive of the game, going 67 yards in seven plays for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:27 left in the second quarter.
Paly tried to rally and Cullen completed a couple of passes, of 22 yards to Passarello and 20 yards to Jamir Shepard. But on first and 10 at the SI 22 Cullen was hit and fumbled with the Wildcats recovering. With less than a minute remaining before halftime they decided to try a long bomb -- and it worked for a 68-yard touchdown. Suddenly Paly was down 20-7 at halftime.
The Vikings defense shut out St. Ignatius the first 21 minutes of the first half and only allowed three points in the second half. They limited SI to 84 yards rushing on 28 carries and 228 yards of total offense. That unit probably feels it deserves a better fate.
“Defense played lights out,’’ Gifford said. “I couldn’t be prouder.’’
At halftime Gifford made the decision to leave Cullen on defense in the second half and play sophomore Danny Peters at quarterback. After misfiring on his first five passes Peters got into a bit of a rhythm and completed nine passes in a row. He connected on one long pass for an apparent TD to Colin Giffen, but it was called back on a penalty.
So in the first game after averaging 34.4 points per game last year Palo Alto’s offense went scoreless. With sack yardage included the team finished with a net minus-7 yards rushing. Cullen and Peters combined for 202 yards passing.
Going forward Gifford has to decide whether to keep playing Cullen both ways. Most hard-hitting safeties don’t play quarterback for a passing team on offense.
“No doubt it’s his team’’ Gifford said. “He’s a team captain and a great leader. I can’t split him in half. How do I manage his energy? If I take him off one I lose his skill on the other.’’