The football was on the ground. Then it was in the air. Then it was going 98 yards the other way.
And Paso Robles High’s chances of shocking visiting Bullard of Fresno in the season opener Friday night at War Memorial Stadium seemingly went sprinting away with it.
The Knights’ Isaiah Justice had an interception land in his lap on a busted screen play, and instead of Paso Robles building on a six-point lead going into the half, the Bearcats trailed by one when Justice ran nearly the length of the field for a touchdown with 16 seconds left in the second quarter.
Bullard used the momentum to run away in the second half for a 33-14 victory.
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“It was a low snap,” Paso Robles quarterback Garrett Nelson said. “I kind of took my drop and one guy came after me. I was hit as I threw, and it went a little high and went over our guy’s head.”
Until then, Nelson looked altogether expert in leading the Bearcats’ offense. He hit Bailey Gaither on a 43-yard bomb for a touchdown on Paso Robles’ first possession of the game. Nelson connected with running back Colton Madrigal for a screen pass that Madrigal zig-zagged through the Bullard defense 26 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-0 later in the first quarter.
The only highlight for the Knights before the interception was a 20-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Dejonte O’neal that was the direct result of a Paso Robles fumble at its own 25-yard line.
On the drive that ended with Justice’s return, the Bearcats gained possession at their own 42-yard line with 2:05 left before the half.
Nelson methodically drove Paso Robles down the field, advancing to the 10-yard line before the drastic momentum shift.
“We controlled the entire first half until the end,” Paso Robles coach Rich Schimke said. “Second half, another story.
“You go up 21 to nothing, you demoralize a team. We didn’t. We didn’t pound the nail. I truly feel like if we went up three scores, it would have been a different story.”
The Knights were plainly shocked from the outset. The fifth-ranked team in The Fresno Bee’s preseason poll and a program that has been to three CIF-Central Section Division I title games in the past seven years, Bullard has its sights sets on making another playoff run.
After a 10-3 season last year, the Knights were not expecting to get tripped up in Paso Robles.
“It really was a big surprise,” said O’neal, who rushed for 100 yards on 19 carries and added a 3-yard touchdown in the second half. “That was a tough team. We underestimated them a little bit when we got off the bus and saw them. That will never happen again, though. We’re going to come out on fire.”
Madrigal led Paso Robles on the ground, gaining 90 yards on 22 carries. Nelson was 8-for-23 passing for 107 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Gaither finished with 66 receiving yards, tying Madrigal with a team-high three catches.
In the second half, the Paso Robles offense sputtered. The Bearcats struggled to convert third downs, and many of their passing plays, Nelson said, were just a bit off — with passes arriving high or too soon or receivers turning too late.
“We threw the ball late,” Schimke said. “Everything was coming out late, late, late, but that’s me. It falls on me because I’m coaching those guys. We’ll fix it.”
Facing a bye next week before a nonleague visit to Santa Ynez the following Friday, Paso Robles has time to improve the timing of its routes and passes.
The Bearcats also took away some positives.
The deep pass to Gaither was a huge confidence boost to a senior quarterback that struggled along with his team through a 3-6 season as a first-year starter in 2011.
Gaither beat his defender up the right sideline, and Nelson lofted the ball about 45 yards in the air and on target.
“It definitely brought me up and made me feel like ‘Alright, this is going well. I can lead this team,’ ” Nelson said. “I feel like we have a lot to build on.”