For Antioch, star back Najee Harris and teammates break an eight-year losing streak to arch-rival Pittsburg with 44-42 victory. The Panthers (10-0) also earned the No. 2 seed in the CIF North Coast Section Division I playoffs and have cracked the State Top 25 for the first time this century. We shouldn’t have to tell you about the No. 1 seed.
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With the stands on both sides of the field filled to capacity and people standing two deep in some places along the fence around the track, the fans at Pittsburg for the 2015 Big Little Game got a show last Saturday they’ll not soon forget.
Trailing 28-14 at halftime and 35-24 in the late third quarter, visiting Antioch (10-0, 5-0) got a huge second half from Alabama-committed junior Najee Harris and the defense scored three times in total to give the Panthers a 44-42 win, their first-ever Bay Valley Athletic League title and first victory in the Big Little Game since 2006.
Pittsburg looked like it was in trouble right away when Harris bowled over tacklers on the fourth play of the game and raced 53 yards for touchdown. Harris then ran in a two-point conversion to stake Antioch to an 8-0 lead.
The way the game started for Harris and Antioch had many of the assembled media thinking Pittsburg could not stop the Panthers’ star running back and although he ended up with a huge performance the remainder of the first half was no cakewalk for the 6-foot-2, 222-pound elite national recruit.
Outside of the long TD run, the Pittsburg defense only allowed Harris 17 carries for 74 yards in the first two quarters, including minus-six yards on his last nine runs in the half.
However, there is a reason Harris is regarded as one of the top junior running backs in the nation by every major scouting service – and he showed just why in the second half and in the fourth quarter in particular.
Harris broke loose for three touchdowns in the final period, including a 1-yard run in which he legally hurdled two diving defenders, and then after going into his patented crouch between plays to save energy, he exploded for an 80-yarder that gave Antioch its first lead of the second half, 38-35, with 7:29 remaining in the game.
Harris padded the lead with two minutes remaining when he scored from nine yards out after quarterback Numan Najib connected with Antione Tanner for a 49-yard completion on third and long.
When all was said and done, Harris finished with 37 carries for 268 yards and four scores.
After the Pirates went three and out to open the third quarter, the visitors marched 63 yards and looked like they would cut into the 14-point halftime deficit but a snap to Harris in the wildcat formation at the Pittsburg two yard line got away and the hosts looked as though they had dodged a bullet after recovering the fumble. However, on the first play, Pittsburg running back Isaiah Turner was tackled in the end zone by Fine Hafoka for a safety that would prove to be the difference in the game.
Harris gets all the glory but a big reason the Panthers won and completed their first undefeated regular season since 1977 was the defense. Not only did that unit record a safety but Ryan Payne had a first half 49-yard interception return for a TD and scored again on defense with an 18-yard fumble recovery in the third quarter.
Also, after allowing the Pittsburg running back duo of Montaz Thompson and Turner to rush for 278 yards and three touchdowns combined in the first half, the defense held the pair to 38 yards on 13 carries in the second half. Thompson finished with 217 yards on 17 carries with three TDs on runs of six, four and 92 yards. Turner had 102 yards on 15 carries.
“We limited Najee’s carries in the early season to save him for league and games just like this, and he responded by getting stronger as the game went on,” Antioch six-year head coach John Lucido said.
And what about the second half defense?
“Going into a big game like that and watching a lot of film we over-thought some things, and I take responsibility for that,” Lucido remarked. “At halftime, we decided to go back to basics and let the guys go out and play and the linebackers really responded.”
Lucido won his first Big Little Game while veteran Pittsburg head coach Vic Galli, who was looking to guide the Pirates to third straight BVAL title, falls to 13-2 in Big Little Games.
With the seedings out on Sunday, some were surprised the 10-0 Panthers got the No. 2 seed behind De La Salle in the CIF North Coast Section Division I playoffs over 10-0 Foothill (Pleasanton), the East Bay athletic League champion. Antioch has a first round bye and will meet the Amador Valley (Pleasanton) at San Leandro winner the following week.
Pittsburg (8-2, 4-1) fell back to the fifth seed and hosts San Ramon Dougherty Valley on Friday night.
Of course, with a player like Harris, visions of seeing what he and Antioch could do against top seed and No. 1 state-ranked De La Salle in a potential NCS D1 title game are hard to deny.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend