Santa Barbara goes for its second CIF football playoff win against Palm Desert on Friday night. (Felipe Garcia / Noozhawk file photo)

The last time Santa Barbara High faced an opponent that played a smash-mouth style of football it was St. Bonaventure back in early September.

That 31-6 loss was a turning-point game for the Dons. Their offensive and defensive fronts stepped up from that point forward and led the team to six wins in the next seven games, including five in a row in the Channel League.

Now known as the Golden Tornado for the CIF-SS playoffs, the second-seeded Santa Barbara football team (9-2) takes on another physical, smash-mouth team in Palm Desert in a Division 8 quarterfinal game on Friday night in Palm Desert.

The Aztecs, 8-3 and undefeated champions (5-0) of the Desert Empire League, plow through defenses, with powerful senior running back Simon Gaete running behind a big offensive line.

Gaete has rushed for a school-record 2,328 yards and scored 28 touchdowns. He ran for 219 yards and five TDs in last week’s 34-14 first-round win over Temescal Canyon. On the year, he has six 200-yard rushing games and a 300-yard game.

The lineman paving the way for the 5-9, 190-pound Gaete are all over 245 pounds, led by Daryne Murillo at 6-2, 305.

The play of guard Nick Baizan has been a key to Santa Barbara’s improved running game.

The play of guard Nick Baizan has been a key to Santa Barbara’s improved running game. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

Palm Desert quarterback Zavier Hill-Kemp is primarily a runner. The 6-4, 200-pound senior has gained 700 yards on 91 carries. As a passer, he’s completed 35 of 72 passes and three TDs.

The Golden Tornado lines have been solid since the start of league play. The improvement on the offensive line has been instrumental in the team becoming more balanced.

The defense, which shut out Gahr, 44-0, in last week’s playoff opener that ended a 30-year drought, has played disciplined and aggressive.

Against Palm Desert, it faces its biggest challenge of the season.

This game has the makings of a shootout, with the Golden Tornado opening up the passing game for cannon-armed quarterback Deacon Hill and his fleet-footed receiving corps to answer Palm Desert’s punishing ground attack.

The Santa Barbara players have done a great job learning from its earlier mistakes and tightening things up. That should make a difference in this game.

The Pick: Santa Barbara

Noozhawk Sports Editor Barry Punzal can be reached at bpunzal@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Barry Punzal, Sports Editor

— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at bpunzal@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.