Serra's Marques Rodgers is brought down by a Notre Dame defender in… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Seven lead changes during a wild 24-minute second half made Friday's season opener between Gardena Serra and host Sherman Oaks Notre Dame a football game to remember.
"It was unbelievable," Serra defensive tackle Inoke Raikadroka said. "I've never been in a game like this."
Serra came away with an exhilarating 26-23 victory on the strength of a 15-yard touchdown reception by Marques Rodgers with 3 minutes 45 seconds left.
Based on the second-half script, Notre Dame was expected to drive the length of the field and score. But the Knights didn't get the chance, because 6-foot-6 quarterback Kelly Hilinski, in shotgun formation, had a snap sail over his head, and Serra's Christian Herrera fell on the ball at the Notre Dame 22-yard line with 2:18 left.
For a first game, players from both teams exhibited terrific resiliency and toughness. Teammates picked each other up and kept battling in a back-and-forth final two quarters after Notre Dame had taken a 3-0 halftime lead thanks to a 21-yard field goal by Lucas Alfonso during its opening drive.
The first sign of a Serra resurgence came on the opening kickoff of the third quarter. A jarring tackle by Malik Roberson forced JJ Muno to fumble. Serra recovered the ball, and on the first play, Rodgers ran 28 yards for the first of his three second-half touchdowns.
Then the real fun began. Daniel Khan of Notre Dame caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Hilinski, putting the Knights on top, 10-6.
Back came Serra, getting a four-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Greene to Anterio Bateman after Greene broke off a 74-yard run. It was Serra 13, Notre Dame 10. The Knights got a three-yard touchdown run from Chris Colarossi at the end of the third quarter for a 17-13 lead.
Notre Dame's Nick Holland came up with a possible game-changing interception, but it was wiped out because of a roughing-the-passer penalty. Rodgers soon scored on a six-yard run to put Serra up, 19-17. Then Khan and Hilinski struck again, Khan diving in the end zone to make a 23-yard touchdown catch with 6:39 left for a 23-19 Notre Dame lead.
This tight game was not unexpected. Last season, Notre Dame beat Serra, 35-13. The Cavaliers were young and not prepared. A year older and a year wiser, they cut down their penalties and did a better job than Notre Dame of avoiding turnovers.
Raikadroka, a 6-foot, 255-pound senior tackle, was a brick wall in the middle of Serra's defensive line, helping to contain the speedy Khalfani Muhammad, who rushed for 126 yards in 23 carries.
"It was an amazing game," Serra Coach Scott Altenberg said.
Greene rushed for 113 yards in 12 carries. Hilinski completed 12 of 16 passes for 147 yards with one interception.
Notre Dame gets little time to deal with defeat. The Knights leave Tuesday for a Friday game in Ireland against Hamilton of Chandler, Ariz.