Noah Letuligasenoa wished his two enormous cousins good luck before kickoff.
The linemen grinned, then vowed to squash him, but the Elk Grove High School senior tight end-linebacker countered with conviction, "You won't be able to catch me."
On a night in which hardly anyone broke free because the defenses refused to allow it, a throwback game of hard hits and defensive stands broke out. The No. 2 Thundering Herd prevailed 7-3 Friday over No. 7 Grant in Elk Grove in a Delta Valley Conference showdown.
In the long, storied history of one of the Sac-Joaquin Section's most spirited rivalries, never has it resulted in this sort of score with this much at stake with the sort of collisions that you'd half think included the crunching of metal and shattering of glass, like so many car wrecks.
Letuligasenoa will see his cousins – the left side of Grant's massive offensive front of Shawn Matautia and Darrin Paulo – in a more civil church setting on Sunday. They might even hand each other an ice pack, and they'll certainly help each other up after prayer.
"We can scheme as much as we want on offense, but what this one came down to was defense and heart," said Letuligasenoa, a three-year starter and a team captain. "I'll need an ice pack for my head, my back, my legs. We have a ton of respect for Grant, and some of those guys are my family."
Grant (4-3) led 3-0 on a Ruben Garza 27-yard field goal. Tommy Arnold, a unique two-way player for Elk Grove (7-0), recovered a fumble at the Grant 41 and scored a moment later on a 13-yard quarterback keeper in the third quarter. He also plays on the defensive line and linebacker.
All told, the Herd rejoiced in its finest effort of the season. Elk Grove's opponents coming in had managed just seven total wins as traditional powers Lincoln of Stockton, Del Campo and Nevada Union are having off years.
There was no doubt about this effort against this foe. Grant's other losses were by six points total to ranked Oak Ridge and Del Oro.
"You don't know what you have until you get into a game like this against a team like this, and we found out," Elk Grove coach Chris Nixon said.
Nixon was the Herd offensive coordinator during Elk Grove's dominant 1997 and '98 Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship repeat run, seasons that included playoff victories over Grant.
The lowest-scoring Grant-Elk Grove game before this was in 1991 in Del Paso Heights. Grant beat top-ranked Elk Grove 13-6 for Mike Alberghini's first win. He remains the Grant coach with a résumé that includes six section titles.
Grant running back Deandre Whittington-Grays was held to 55 yards.
Wadus Parker of Elk Grove managed 88 yards, but 60 came on one carry.
It was a night for Elk Grove's stoppers, led by defensive linemen B'won Canada, Sai Ta'amu and Dior Vela and linebackers Elijah Jones, Manny Scott-Anderson and Spencer Sheff, and defensive back Shaunard Harts.
"I live for these games," Letuligasenoa said, rubbing out welts on his arms. "Offense is fun, but this was a hands-in-the-dirt kind of game."
Letuligasenoa said this game, which could decide the DVC title, might launch his program. Elk Grove won 12 games in both 2011 and 2012. It seeks more this time.
"I have a really special feeling about this team," he said.
Joe Davidson and Mike Finnerty break down Week 7 of high school football and look ahead from 9 to 10 a.m. on ESPN1320 (linked later to ESPN1320.net).