Running, defense key in Jackrabbits' win
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- At the height of the "Ten-Year War" between college football powers Michigan and Ohio State, Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes was known for saying, "There are three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them ain't good."
On Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium, Hayes' quote was good advice for host Long Beach Poly in its non-league showdown with St. Bonaventure of Ventura. The Jackrabbits stuck with their power running game, except on one huge play at the end of the first half.
With time running out in a scoreless first half, there seemed to be some confusion as to what personnel Poly wanted on the field for a last-ditch effort. At the last moment, senior defensive back Stan McKay trotted out and promptly hauled in an 11-yard touchdown catch from senior QB Morgan Fennell with five seconds remaining. Fennell floated the ball toward the left corner of the end zone and McKay's spectacular two-hand grab springboarded Poly to a hard-fought 12-7 victory in a battle of ESPN RISE FAB 50 ranked programs.
"This is what we're made for, this is what our defense is supposed to do," said Jackrabbits defensive lineman Luta Tepa, who spearheaded a defensive charge that held St. Bonaventure (4-1) to 47 total yards in the first half and 161 overall.
Poly, which came into the contest ranked No. 6 in the FAB 50, went back to its power running game on its second drive of the third quarter. Poly (5-0) started from its own 20-yard line and gave the Seraphs defense a heavy dose of senior running backs Melvin Richardson and Daveon Barner. Richardson, who ran for 93 yards on 17 carries, powered his way to gains of 20 and 25 yards on his first two carries of the drive, as the Jackrabbits ate up most of the third-period clock. The drive eventually bogged down at the St. Bonaventure 17-yard line.
Instead of attempting a 34-yard field goal, Poly coach Raul Lara went back to his running game. Facing a fourth-and-2 with 3:07 remaining in the quarter, Richardson got the call, but was stuffed for no gain.
"I was greedy," Lara said. "I wanted to score a touchdown. That changed the momentum."
After the change of possession, the Seraphs were energized and took advantage of Poly's missed opportunity. On the second play of the drive, Devon Blackledge, who had nine carries for 84 yards, ripped off the Seraphs' only double-digit run from scrimmage, as his 56-yard scamper set up St. Bonaventure's only score of the game. With four downs to score from the 6-yard line, Seraphs' tight end Zack Meyer made up for a 5-yard penalty on the previous play by hauling in a 11-yard touchdown catch from QB Logan Meyer to tie the game with 1:12 remaining in the third quarter.
St. Bonaventure, which came in ranked No. 40 in the FAB 50, kept the momentum on its side after Fennell, who was 3-of-9 for 23 yards on the night, misfired on a wide-open pass to wide receiver Jordan Johnson. That forced Poly to punt on a short field, but its defense and special teams rose to the occasion.
The Seraphs took over at the 20-yard line, but Poly forced them back after a sack by Eli Edwards resulted in a loss of 8 yards. St. Bonaventure punted from the shadow of its own end zone and defensive back Ryan Willis came off the edge to block the punt. The St. Bonaventure player that raced back to recover the loose ball was tackled in the end zone to give Poly a safety and a 9-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
"Thank god we blocked that punt," Lara said. "After that long kickoff return, the momentum was about to turn again, but our defense stepped up."
The kickoff Lara was referring to took place after Poly took advantage of the free kick to take a 12-7 lead. When the drive following Willis' blocked punt came to a halt, David Skara booted a 30-yard field goal with 3:46 remaining to give Poly's defense the cushion it needed.
Just when it looked like St. Bonaventure would have a long way to go for the game-winning points, Nolan Rodarte weaved his way through a few arm tackles and kept his balance on a serpentine 64-yard kickoff return. The Seraphs eventually drove down to the 15-yard line and faced a third-and-3 with 39 seconds remaining, but Tepa tackled two-way standout and USC commit Patrick Hall in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.
On fourth down, Meyer looked for the end zone, but Poly defensive back Lazarri Middleton picked off the ball in the end zone to seal the win for the Jackrabbits.
"I had to step up for my team after they tied the game up," Willis said. "All that matters is we got the win."
With its victory, Poly solidified its status as California's top-ranked team. The Jackrabbits will also retain their No.1 spot in CalHiSports.com's CIF Bowl Game Open Division ratings -- which is reserved for Southern California's top representative in the marquee game of this year's two-day, five-game CIF Bowl Championship Games event. Despite the loss, St. Bonaventure will likely remain as the top-rated team in the SoCal Div. III Bowl Game ratings, especially considering how close it was to winning Friday night's game.
"Our boys played hard," said St. Bonaventure coach Todd Therrien. "Take nothing away from them, but we didn't execute on a couple of plays."
Ronnie Flores covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com