ANAHEIM – They had been on a collision course all season. Both teams had lived up to the hype as they went through the playoffs. And when they met at Angel Stadium on Saturday to determine the undefeated Pac-5 champion, an unstoppable offense and a bruising defense both showed up.
For the same team.
Second-seeded Servite scored four times in the first half and rode the arm and legs of Cody Pittman, the continued excellence of Malik Felton, and the trademark defense to a decisive 41-27 victory in front of 15,582 fans over the one team that figured to have a chance to beat them. It's the second consecutive championship for Servite (14-0), which also won the Division II State Bowl championship last season.
Instead, top-seeded Mission Viejo (13-1) found the defense of Servite (14-0) just as physical as advertised. The Diablo offense dropped balls – perhaps knowing the jarring hit that would come with every completion – and threw interceptions and didn't look anything like the team that averaged 45.1 points this season.
“They rattled some of us,” said Mission Viejo quarterback Alex Bridgford, a junior who fumbled at the one-yard line on Mission Viejo's final play with 52 seconds to go. “We had to come back at the end but it was too late.”
This game had seemingly been in the making since last season when Mission Viejo was turned away on a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute of a 19-18 loss to Servite in the semifinals.
After trailing 24-7 at halftime, Mission made its run in the second half and and pulled to within 34-27 with 3:24 left in the game on Bridgford's 11-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Keller.
On the next play, after Connor Hoffman made a nice play on the onside kick, Felton ran 48 yards for a touchdown.
The 41 points came a a surprise to Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson. “They big-played us and they hadn't big played anybody all season,” he said. “Who have they done that to, let alone us in the CIF finals. Anyone here would have put a million dollars on that.”
Servite had scored 48 this season against Granada Hills Kennedy, and 41 against JSerra and Long Beach Jordan.
Felton rushed 24 times for 184 yards and touchdowns of two, 21 and 48 yards. He also took a short pass from Cody Pittman and went 45 for a 31-14 lead.
“Mission's the big powerhouse, to battle with them and get a victory is huge,” said Pittman, who also threw a 34-yard TD pass to Robert Abeyta in the first quarter and finished nine of 15 for 213 yards. “I felt we needed some big plays to win this game. They're a powerhouse offense. It's a huge game agianst a big team. Hype of the year. To beat them is phenomenal for our program.”
Mission Viejo moved the ball, but moving the ball and getting into the end zone were two different things, especially in the first half. Karlton Dennis intercepted a Tre Madden pass at the 25 that set up Servite's third consecutive touchdown for a 21-7 lead, and Butch Pauu intercepted a Bridgford pass at the seven in the final minute of the half to protect a 24-7 margin.
That gave Servite a three-possession lead going into the second half, and that was good as gold for the Friars, although linebacker Matt Inman said his team “never felt like we had control of it, to be honest. They're a second half team. We knew we were in for a battle.”
Bridgford finished 21 of 48 for 274 yards, one TD and one interception. Dallas Kessman ran 21 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns. Madden suffered a separated right shoulder in the third quarter. Three other Diablos had to be helped off the field by a team that is known for being physical. The wildcat quarterback carried three times for minus-nine yards, and had his only pass intercepted.
"I did expect them to score," Servite coach Troy Thomas said. "They're too good, too well-coached to not score. I'm not bothered that they scored 27 because we won."
Servite's offense rolled in the first half behind Pittman.
Mission fumbled on its second play when Madden pitched the ball to Kessman. A 12-yard loss moved the ball to the eight, and a punt gave Servite the ball at the Mission 35. On the first play, Pittman threw deep to Robert Abeyta streaking into the end zone.
Mission seemed to get its footing and answered with a 121-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Kessman diving into the end zone from one yard.
But Servite answered by showing just how far it has come under Pittman, a junior quarterback who was often criticized. Servite drove 80 yards in 13 plays as Pittman completed three of four passes and Felton went in from two for a 14-7 lead 65 seconds into the second quarter.
After the Dennis interception, Pittman ran 40 yards on the first play, and three plays later Felton scored from 21 for a 21-7 edge.
In the second half, it was just a matter of Servite not imploding, and the team that was the embodiment of steadiness during its first 13 games had only one slip-up over the final 24 minutes. Felton fumbled at the Servite 48, and Mission took it in to cut the lead to seven points. It was Felton's second fumble, his only ones of the season.
“They're a talented team,” Inman said. "We did enough to win the game. A lot of games we do just enough. We don't blow teams out. We play a tough schedule so that that we've been in this situation before.”
They have now done it 25 games in a row, and the Friars will play next week in either the Open or Division I Bowl Championship.