Santa Barbara’s Jacob Nevarez breaks up a pass intended for Rio Mesa’s Adrian Gonzales. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

The defense of Santa Barbara High’s football team was the difference-maker in a heart-stopping 7-6 overtime victory over Rio Mesa on Friday night at Peabody Stadium.

The Dons swarmed Rio Mesa running back J’lin Wingo on a two-point conversion attempt and survived the Channel League slugfest with a hard-earned victory that improved their records to 3-1 in league and 5-1 overall. Rio Mesa is 2-1 and 3-2.

“What can you say, our defense won this football game for us,” Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone said.

Starting the overtime at the 13-yard line after Rio Mesa was penalized for a personal foul on the final play of regulation, Santa Barbara quarterback Abel Renteria passed to receiver Kai Mault for a 13-yard touchdown on the first play. Jeffery Lechuga kicked the PAT for the eventual winning point.

Rio Mesa started its OT possession at the 25 and quarterback J.J. Bittner moved the Spartans to the 4. He threw an incomplete pass on first and goal, and Dons’ linebacker Julian Castro stopped running back Isaiah Bautista for no gain on second down.

On third and goal, Bittner found wide receiver Henry Borjas for the touchdown. 

The Spartans elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win. Santa Barbara snuffed out the play, swarming Wingo and keeping the big Rio Mesa offensive line from pushing him into the end zone.

Santa Barbara players sprinted up the field to celebrate as the Dons’ fans roared with delight.

“We knew they were going to do as much as they could to get in,” linebacker Benicio Garcia Holland said. “We just had to give it our all on that one, stuff them in the gaps and fill as much as possible. It took the whole team to stuff it, several players on the bottom (of the pile) and on top, and we got him at the 1.”

Jack Holdren of Santa Barbara tries to get away from a couple of Rio Mesa defenders after making a catch in the open field.

Jack Holdren of Santa Barbara tries to get away from a couple of Rio Mesa defenders after making a catch in the open field. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

“We did everything,” linebacker Rork Norton said. “Our coaches called the perfect calls. Everything went well, literally everything. Everyone gave 110%, no matter what.

“All I got to say is we have the best defense in the league.”

Santa Barbara’s secondary was outstanding as it contained Rio Mesa’s talented receiver Chance Harrison. Defensive backs Daniel Mora, Jacob Navarez, Jordan Mitchum and Andrew Tobin kept Harrison out of the end zone. Navarez made a dazzling interception in the first quarter.

On the final play of regulation, three Dons were around Harrison as Bittner tried to hit him on a 37-yard pass. The ball was overthrown and Rio Mesa was hit with penalty that was assessed in overtime.

Rio Mesa coach said Jim Bittner felt going for the win was the right thing to do.

“I told the kids I think right here it was the right time to go for it,” he said. “It is what it is. I can’t second guess it now. (Santa Barbara) did a good job. They got up to the line of scrimmage and a kid made a great play right at the line.”

Renteria said the play to Mault for the touchdown was actually supposed to be a run. “But I saw that they were opening the box, so I just wanted to give our receivers a chance to make a play, a short route.”

He then added, “I’m not going to lie, Kai Mault ran the wrong route, but he clutched-up when we needed him. I’m proud of everyone, defense especially. This is all defense. They saved us.”

Santa Barbara secondary breaks up a long pass intended Rio Mesa receiver Chance Harrison in the end zone on the final play of regulation.

Santa Barbara secondary breaks up a long pass intended Rio Mesa receiver Chance Harrison in the end zone on the final play of regulation. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara’s defense held the Spartans to 65 yards rushing and limited Bittner to 147 yards through the air on 16 of 33 passes.

The Dons had chances to score in regulation. In the second quarter, the defense forced Rio Mesa to punt from its 19 and the Dons’ offense over at the 50. From the 47,  Renteria hit Winston Bartley over the middle for a 21-yard gain and Renteria followed with an 8-yard run, moving the ball to the Spartans’ 16.

Santa Barbara ran the ball down to the 8, but it squirted lose and Rio Mesa recovered.

The Dons’ defense held again, and Nathan Barrios broke off runs of 18 and 13 yards, moving the ball to the Rio Mesa 26. The Spartans’ blitzed on first down and sacked Renteria for a 9-yard loss. The quarterback ran for 3 yards  before Lechuga came on to try a 50-yard field goal with time running out in the first half.

The attempt was short and Rio Mesa’s Harrison caught the ball one yard into the end zone. The play should have been whistled dead, but Harrison took off running and almost reached the end zone. Mault, however, chased him down and knocked him out of bounds a half yard from the goal-line. That’s how the first half ended.

Santa Barbara’s defense continued to frustrate the Spartans in the second half. Sammy Perez, Mora and Barrios broke up third-down pass plays, Navarez made a great tackle for no gain on a third and 5, and Mitchum denied Harrison on a deep throw on fourth down.

Renteria moved the Dons to the Rio Mesa 18 in the third quarter and they tried anorther field goal. The snap, however, was high and Mault, the holder, took off running and was tackled for no gain.

Rio Mesa blocked a third field-goal attempt by the Dons from 48 yards in the fourth quarter. 

“We knew it was going to be a tough task, but we got to score in the red zone,” said Stone. “We had two missed field-goal opportunities and the last one got blocked, so those are things we got to clean up. But I told our kids this is a playoff-caliber team right here.

“We have played three or four playoff-caliber teams, so this just shows how tough our team is.”

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