Neil MacDannald fired a deep ball down the sideline, leaving just enough air underneath it for safety Elijah Cooper to slide over.
With his next throw, the Manteca High offensive coordinator turned scout team quarterback attacked the opposite boundary.
Cornerback Luis Reyes boxed out the receiver, locking onto the ill-fated pass.
The Buffaloes’ secondary has looked sharp and stingy in dress rehearsal for Sierra, but can they duplicate that effort before a crowd and those unforgiving Friday night lights?
Manteca (5-0 Valley Oak League, 7-1) is nothing if not confident.
The Buffaloes surge into Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium on a six-game tear, each victory a little more convincing than the last. At least on paper, Sierra (4-1, 6-2), with its points-by-the-pass spread offense and its own title hopes, poses the last threat to the Buffaloes’ march toward an outright Valley Oak League championship.
Manteca will close the regular season with traditional rival East Union (0-5, 1-7) on Nov. 8.
“Early on in the summer we spent a great deal of time recognizing the offenses we’d face,” Manteca High defensive coordinator Rick James said.
“Central Valley had some weapons. Weston Ranch, even though it might not have looked like it, they had some good receivers. Even Lathrop I thought had good receivers. So we’ve faced teams with good receivers.
“I’d like to think they’re taking this as a personal challenge. As a team, they’re standing in the way of us capturing a VOL championship.”
Manteca is surrendering just 13 points per game in league play, but it has been gashed. Sonora ran wild between the 20-yard lines in a 49-21 loss, and Lathrop quarterback Kenny Garrett threw for 325 yards in a 56-7 defeat.
“They have some tendencies,” Sierra quarterback Jake Pruitt said. “They’ve shown a lot different coverages. As a leader, I need to be watching film … watching for those tendencies.”
The Buffaloes have tightened the screws in recent weeks with runaway victories over Oakdale, Kimball and Weston Ranch. Still, the Buffaloes haven’t faced an offense as diverse and as talented as Sierra’s new-look spread.
Unlike a year ago, when Sierra stopped Manteca 35-26 with heavy doses of Anthony Cota, Pruitt is now the principle star.
The 6-foot-3 senior is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,291 yards. He’s thrown 27 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
“First and foremost, his size and presence in the pocket stand out to me,” James said. “He seems to play catch really well. He keeps his eyes down the field.
“In years past, their run game has been a little more prevalent. But if you look at this year, their strength is in their passing game. (Reid) Maestas is a good back and they’ll give him some opportunities, but when it’s all said and done, they want No. 12 to throw the rock.”
Bryson Sanders has been Pruitt’s favorite target with a team-high 54 catches, but Lucas Widmer and Hunter Johnson have emerged as Sierra’s home-run hitters.
Widmer leads the team with 747 yards on 43 catches and has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in three of his last four games.
Johnson is averaging nearly 17 yards per reception.
“Not every ball I’ve thrown has been perfect,” Pruitt said. They’re making some grabs that I don’t see other high school kids making.”
James believes he has the personnel to win those matchup on the perimeter.
Brandon Dabney may be the area’s best shut-down corner. He leads the team with two interceptions, one more than Cooper. Junior Dom Pisano ranks among the team leaders in tackles.
Reyes has been integrated into the secondary, giving Manteca depth and coverage options, and running back Mike Gonzalez will be used in nickel and dime packages.
“All their guys are really good. … We have to have faith in the guys that we have,” James said. “The biggest thing I can do to help them is to put them under pressure, which we’ve done a good job at.”
The onus falls not on the defensive backs, James said, but the linemen and linebackers. If Manteca can’t win the battle at the line of scrimmage, if it can’t rattle and harass Pruitt early, he will dissect the defense like a laboratory frog.
“We have to collapse the pocket and put pressure on him. We have to make him uncomfortable. If he’s allowed to sit back there and be comfortable, he’s going to play catch. A big part of our game plan is to mix pressures and mix our coverages.
“I ask a lot of them. I’ve challenged them. I look forward to seeing how they compete; how they answer that challenge.”