Tristan Hofmann receives catch

Tristan Hofmann comes down with a catch for the Cougars during a 36-20 loss at Menlo-Atherton on Friday. Both teams were considered among the best in the Bay Area. Photo courtesy Becky Ruppel

For the first time in a long time, the Half Moon Bay High School varsity football team found itself in unfamiliar territory on Friday night. By halftime, the Cougars were in a 30-0 hole at Menlo-Atherton High School.

Head coach Keith Holden knows how easy it can be for teams to fold in such a predicament. But, after some key missed assignments and botched tackles, the Cougars knew they had to make some adjustments if they were to climb back into the game.

“I’m proud of our kids for playing the whole game and not quitting,” Holden said when it was all over. “I’ve been around a lot of football and a lot of teams (quit) in that situation.”

M-A (1-0) largely controlled the first half and ultimately won, 36-20, at home on Friday night. But the Cougars (1-1) showed some fight in the second half by winning the point differential 20-6 and scoring the last 14 unanswered. In the end, though, M-A was just too skilled and athletic and the Cougars couldn’t afford the slow start and turnovers.

For prep football fans, this was a long-awaited matchup between two of the best teams in the Peninsula Athletic League in recent years. The press ranked both teams in the top 20 headed into the second week of the season. The teams last faced each other in 2018 when M-A won, 24-7. Five seasons ago, the Bears won the league, Central Coast Section and Northern California championships in 2016 and 2018. The Cougars took home the PAL Bay title in 2017 and went on to win Central Coast Section and NorCal titles before losing in a state final. In 2019, the Cougars went to the Ocean after a tumultuous season in the Bay the previous year. Half Moon Bay steamrolled the Ocean while M-A was named the Bay champion.

M-A’s offense was explosive and its defense was decisive on Friday. Behind a solid offensive line, junior quarterback Matt MacLeod had plenty of space in the pocket and could make plays with his legs before unleashing passes deep downfield. MacLeod completed 11 of 14 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns. The first came three plays into the game, a 55-yard shot to wide receiver Jalen Moss, who ended with two touchdowns.

On the Cougars’ first possession, quarterback William Moffitt converted on fourth-and-5 with a 6-yard scramble. Several plays later, Moffitt nearly connected with Tristan Hofmann on another fourth down, this one from 14 yards out. Hofmann spun his way 34 yards into the end zone, but a holding penalty brought them back to midfield and took away the would-be first score of the game for the Cougars.

M-A took advantage and scored on an 18-yard screen pass the next possession, putting the Bears up 14-0.

The Bears pulled away in the second quarter. MacLeod slung a 60-yard bomb on third-and-3 to put his team up 20-0. After the Cougars botched snap went over Moffitt’s head, the Bears recovered it nearly 30 yards downfield. The Cougars put up a good defensive stand, but MacLeod simply took another deep shot to Jeremiah Earby, who finished the 60-yard play and put the Bears up 27-0 with less than three minutes remaining in the half.

The Cougars came out much more aggressively to start the second half, making good use of its condensed Jumbo formation on offense to march downfield with a series of pitches and dives. Hofmann had 135 yards on 22 carries and scored three touchdowns, two rushing and one passing.

He punched in a one-yard score up the middle to put the Cougars on the board 30-6 with 3:34 left in the third quarter. The Bears responded with a one-two punch the next drive when Earby (two catches for 134 yards) caught a one-handed 43-yard pass from MacLeod before Dwayne Green ran in a 10-yard score.

The following drive, Hofmann again capped off another possession with a short score up the middle.

Toward the end of the game, Hofmann ran in a 2-yard touchdown, then caught a pass from Moffitt on the two-point attempt to set the final score at 36-20. M-A’s first-year head coach Chris Saunders had high praise for the Cougars’ offense before the matchup. But he knew his tall wide receivers would present a tough matchup for the Cougars’ defensive backs.

“Every offensive strategy has to assess what your strength and weaknesses are, and we’ve got a stable of wide receivers,” Saunders said. “If they were on any other team, every single one of them could be the No. 1 receiver on that team in the Bay Area.”

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