MODESTO — Mariano Rocha slammed an exclamation point on Lathrop’s 35-7 come-from-behind Western Athletic Conference win Thursday night over Beyer at Johansen High’s Dan Gonsalves Field.
With the Spartans (2-1 WAC, 2-4 overall) having just scored to ice the game midway through the fourth quarter, Rocha stepped in front of a Patriots pass for a 17-yard interception return for a touchdown — the first of the senior’s career.
“In the first half I got beat on pretty much the exact same play,” Rocha said. “This time I told myself I was going to do my job and I got that pick.
“The ‘D’ line put him under pressure and I was able to pick it off.”
Rocha’s pick-six may have been the highlight-reel play of the night, but gutsy play calling to start the second half gave the momentum back to the Spartans for keeps.
Trailing 7-6 to begin the third quarter, Lathrop forced Beyer (0-3, 0-6) to go three and out, giving the Spartans the ball on their own 45-yard line. Lathrop then grinded out a 12-play, 55-yard scoring drive, highlighted by three fourth-down conversions. Included was an 18-yard scoring pass from Justin Manuel (6 of 12 passing, 141 yards; 13 carries, 41 yards) to Maurice Saulsbury II (five receptions, 136 yards) on fourth-and-14 with 4:42 left in the third period.
“I don’t know why, but we always come out flat,” Manuel said. “At halftime the coaches told us our mistakes and it was my job to fix them.
“I trusted my teammates and we got it done.”
The first fourth-down challenge on that drive was on a fourth-and-7, and Saulsbury appeared to be stopped short, but extra effort got the job done.
“That first drive of the second half gave us the momentum,” Saulsbury said. “We executed the plays we needed to and kept on pushing.”
Spartans coach Joe Pirillo looked to heat things up in the second half.
“We wanted to be aggressive in that second half,” Pirillo said. We wanted to establish the run game because they were playing soft coverage out there and we wanted to take advantage of that, going back and forth trying to mix it up and we finally found the right combination.
“On that fourth-down touchdown pass they pressed us up on the outside and I thought we could hit something right over the middle. Moe (Saulsbury) ran a great route — he was wide open — I am just glad that he didn’t get nervous about catching the ball. Then he turned around on the next play and made a two-point conversion. That was one heck of play.”
While racking up 350 yards of total offense, Lathrop held the Patriots to just 121 overall yards.
“We were just trying to reset the line and play on the other side,” Pirillo said of his stingy defense. “The guys really took that to heart and we wanted to come out and establish we could play a good rush defense.”
The Spartans started the game hitting on all cylinders, taking the opening kickoff and marching 65 yards on seven plays capped by Sebastian Iniguez’s 5-yard scoring run. Iniguez (17 carries, 69 yards) added a 20-yard scoring scamper just prior to Rocha’s interception return. Isaac Ramos (eight carries, 100 yards) exploded for a 67-yard touchdown run with 1:43 left in the third quarter to make the score 21-7.
Iniguez led the Lathrop defense with 13 tackles. Rocha had five tackles, Adrian Corona had four stops, Jordan Denning recovered a fumble and Saulsbury II made an interception.
Beyer’s lone score came on a 4-yard run by Anthony Lopez with 4:10 left in the first half.
Lathrop 6 0 15 14 — 35
Beyer 0 7 0 0 — 7
L—Sebastian Iniguez 5 run (kick failed), 9:47.
B—Anthony Lopez 4 run (Ethan Rose kick), 4:10.
L—Maurice Saulsbury II 18 pass from Justin Manuel (Saulsbury II pass from Manuel), 4:42.
L—Isaac Ramos 67 run (Jesus Fierros kick), 1:43.
L—Iniguez 20 run (Fierros kick), 6:10.
L—Mariano Rocha 17 interception return (Fierros kick), 4:27.