For a whole year, the memory has festered in the minds of Arroyo Grande High football players.
“Everyone on this team has just been thinking about that day last year,” Eagles linebacker Zack Zandt said. “Forty-eight to 17. It’s just been burning in all of our hearts.”
The score he mentioned was the outcome of last year’s game against traditional rival San Luis Obispo. It was one of six defeats the Eagles suffered in 2008 on the way to their third straight losing season — a highly uncharacteristic string for a program that claimed four CIF-Southern Section divisional championships from 1987 to 1998.
The Eagles (4-1) — off to their best start since 2005 — host the Tigers (3-2, 1-0 PAC 7) in their PAC 7 opener at 7 tonight at Doug Hitchen Stadium.
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“Kids always get a little bit more excited at the beginning of league, but with it being San Luis, it gets heightened emotionally,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “We don’t have to say much to the kids about San Luis. They know the history.
“Heck, with the Twitters, the Facebooks, the blogs and everything else, these kids know each other better than kids 20 years ago could’ve ever imagined,” added Goossen, who has been with the Arroyo Grande staff for 23 seasons.
The Eagles’ resurgence has been driven by a versatile offense featuring five running backs who’ve rushed for between 102 and 341 yards. The quintet of runners has been finding room behind a veteran offensive line led by tackle Sean Brown, a 6-foot-7, 288-pounder, center Zach Melson and guard Robert Kobara — all seniors.
“We really need to focus on stopping the run,” Tigers defensive back Alex Frost said. “If our linemen can stay low, our linebackers can flow and our DBs can hold their lanes and get off their blocks, I think we can be successful.”
Meanwhile, Eagles senior quarterback Matt McAustin is 57-of-86 passing for 772 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions.
“We’re definitely very confident,” McAustin said. “I feel like we can compete with pretty much everyone right now.”
The Tigers, who installed a triple-option offense prior to this season with the help of coaches at Cal Poly (which runs the same scheme), knew there might be growing pains in executing such a new system.
San Luis Obispo has lost seven fumbles in its past three games, but in last week’s 20-0 win at Lompoc, none came from the quarterback spot, and eight ball carriers combined to rush for 296 yards.
“Every week, we’re cleaning things up more and more,” said Tigers running back Nate Nunno, who carried a football around campus this week after losing one of the fumbles in Lompoc.
After a 34-10 loss to Morro Bay on Sept. 25, when incumbent starting quarterback Anthony Maez lost two fumbles at pivotal junctures, the Tigers switched to Dylan Candaele, an all-San Luis Obispo County first-team defensive back last year whose athleticism and recognition skills made him an ideal candidate to operate the triple option.
“He adds a dimension you have to have in this offense,” Tigers coach David Kelley said. “Dylan has different speed. And he just has good football instincts. He does a good job commanding the field.”
Candaele has gone an efficient 9-of-13 passing for 124 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing for 153 yards and two scores on 30 carries. The speedy Nunno has been the primary threat for the Tigers, taking 58 carries for 474 yards and three scores.
The Tigers’ coaching staff has also grown, as Kelley, in his first year as head coach, has delegated offensive line duties to former head coach Vic Ecklund, while Rick Cramer coordinates the passing game.
“When we walked out of that Morro Bay game, we felt we were in a tight spot,” Kelley said. “Both those moves have allowed me to focus on defense the last two games.”
During that span, San Luis Obispo has allowed just three points and 125.5 yards per contest.
“I think we’re ready,” Zandt said of facing the Tigers’ misdirection-based offense.
“They can trick us all they want, but in the end, we’re just going to hit them hard, and they’re going to slow down.”
Prior to last year’s meeting between the two schools, the Tigers won 37-7 in 2007 and 16-14 in 2006.
“Everyone has looked at this like our chance to prove to the whole area and county that we’re back,” Zandt said, “and we’re going to show everyone what we can do.”