There were a few big plays on offense for South High on Friday night, but the Battle for the Civil War Sword is not won with flash -- so the Rebels used some gritty defense for good measure.
South beat host North 20-7, holding the Stars to 230 yards and forcing six three-and-outs as the Rebels improved to 5-0 for the first time this century.
"People forget that we have a good defense," South coach Cary Mills said. "We may not be real big, but we can cover the field."
That's not to say South, which has relied on big plays on offense, defense and special teams throughout its undefeated start, didn't have a couple on Friday night. Asonte Johnson was responsible for the two biggest, a 43-yard touchdown run that opened the scoring early in the second quarter and a 90-yard interception return for another score just before halftime.
"They were big momentum changers," Johnson said. "That first quarter was tough, and we knew we needed some big plays in the second."
Johnson, who finished with 70 yards rushing and 21 receiving, made it 6-0 with his first touchdown. But North (1-4) drove down the field late in the half and reached the South 20 with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final two minutes before halftime. Instead, Steven Twiss' pass was thrown slightly behind his intended target and Johnson jumped on it.
"I read that slant coming down, and I just jumped in front," he said. "I just saw grass in front of me. Just grass, man. It's a great feeling."
Just like that, what could have been a 7-6 North lead was a 13-0 deficit.
"It's a huge turnaround," North coach Chad Brown said. "It could have been a lead, and instead we're down 13, and that's rough on the kids. They had two humongous plays, but it was a testament to our guys that they kept fighting."
South made it 20-0 when Johnnie Dirden scored on a 24-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Stars got on the board with 6:53 left on David Reyes' 24-yard run, but they couldn't pull any closer. Reyes finished with 119 rushing yards on a night that saw the school celebrate its 60th Homecoming in part with special decals on players' helmets.
"We used a decal from the (North) teams of the 1960s," Brown said. "Turk Eliades and those guys, they never quit, and that's what we preach to these guys. This was a stepping stone for us."
North has lost 15 of its past 16 games, dating to 2011, but the Stars have been competitive in all four of their losses this season.
"There's no give-up in this team," Brown said. "We'll just keep going into league, and hopefully the results will come there."
South has bigger goals in mind, too. The Rebels' next three games figure to be their toughest of the season: South Yosemite League dates with West and Ridgeview, plus a non-conference game against Bakersfield Christian.
"I'll tell you now, I think we've played up to maybe half of our potential," said Mills, who took over for John Wren this summer after Wren's sudden death. "We have too many penalties, we lose intensity or focus. If we could play a full game, it would be interesting to see what we looked like."
It's a thought that makes you wonder if the Rebels don't have a whole lot more in mind than just a hot start. South hasn't won a playoff game since 1995, before most of its players were born.
"This is big," Johnson said. "I can't wait for league play. We have some little stuff to fix, and we're there."