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CIF-SS DIVISION 8 FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS : Valley Christian’s defense clamps down in second half in first round victory

By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

Valley Christian High’s football team ended the 2017 regular season averaging an even 45 points per game while its defense allowed less than 20 points a game. Against Riverside-based Notre Dame High in the first round of the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division 8 playoffs last Friday night, the Crusaders had to rely on their defense more than their offense.

V.C. was held without an offensive touchdown in the second half while the defense forced three third quarter punts and held the Titans on downs three times in the fourth quarter in a 28-13 victory. The Crusaders got just a 45-yard punt return from senior Jaylon Tucker with 1:32 left in the third quarter for the only points by either team in the second half. Still, the game was a vast difference from V.C.’s 12-0 win over Notre Dame last season in the Division 9 semifinals.

“A lot more offense,” said V.C. head coach Woodie Grayson of the rematch. “I don’t think we played as well as we could have offensively. They had a really, really good player defensively that gave us trouble for most of the half. We found a way to get a little separation with a couple of big plays and a special teams play. Our defense pitched a shutout in the second half. So, it was a different score but every bit as intense and every bit as physical as it was last year.”

Defense set the tone real early as Notre Dame’s Aaron Cooper recovered a fumble and the Titans turned that into a one-yard score from Kavon Fulgham. Later in the quarter, V.C. senior defensive back Garret Williams intercepted a Mac Fennell pass.

After both teams traced punts, the Crusaders (9-2), ranked fifth in the division, tied the game on a 39-yard run from senior wide receiver Quory Smith. The Titans would regain the lead early in the second quarter on a 41-yard field goal from Jun Hwang. But V.C. took the lead for good when Williams caught a short one-yard pass from senior quarterback Isaac Joseph.

The touchdown ended a drive that lasted over four and a half minutes and was aided by a pass interference call on Notre Dame. But facing third and goal from the one-yard line, Grayson called a timeout to set up the play.

“We had a different play called and they were in a defense we didn’t want to see for the play call that we had,” Grayson said. “So, we had to get out of that play and go to a safer play because they were going to blitz those guys up the middle and we had a QB run up the middle designed.”

V.C. then got the edge it needed when senior Josh Akrofi recovered an onside kick from senior kicker Chris Dupuy and four plays later, Joseph ran it in from seven yards out for a 21-10 lead. The Titans responded by going seven plays in nearly three minutes. But two illegal procedure penalties limited the Titans to another 41-yard field goal from Hwang.

“Our special teams coordination, coach [Kirk] Diego, does a good job of identifying holes in the kickoff returns,” Grayson said. “All year long, we’ve taken chances on squibs or short right and left kicks and seeing if we can get down and get a turnover. He saw something tonight and it worked in our favor.”

“The big difference [from last season’s game] was their receivers,” Smith said. “Last year, they had one guy who was getting all of the passes. This year, they have multiple guys who were getting all the passes. So, that was the big thing we had to cover tonight. I just had to step up and tell the other corner he had to do his job this year because last year, I stepped up and we won that game.”

While the Crusaders were held to 184 yards of total offense in the first half, only four plays went for double-digit yardage. Besides Smith’s touchdown, he also gained 34 yards on one carry on the drive that produced the Williams touchdown. Also on that drive was a 12-yard gain from senior running back Darian Green. For the game, V.C. picked up 156 yards on 41 carries. Smith led the team with 82 yards on five carries while senior running back Gianni Hurd was held in check at 47 yards on 13 touches.

“It was a really tough game,” Smith said. “I had to step it up a notch because it’s the playoffs. We had a couple of guys who got injured, so I had to step my game up and tell the other guys to be quiet because it was getting a little crazy out there.”

“Q’s explosive,” Grayson said. “He found a couple of seams a couple of times and scored the one big play and then changed field position on another. So, those were big plays for us.”

In the second half, the deepest the Titans would get was the V.C. 11-yard line early in the fourth quarter. However, the drive stalled after a sack from junior defensive lineman Sam Range and three straight incomplete passes by Fennell. However, the Crusaders ran 10 plays in the fourth quarter and crossed midfield once in the second half.

“I think the game was really decided in the first half,” Grayson said. “We did manage to come out and put a touchdown on the board in the second half with a special teams play. But both defenses played really well; ours was just a little bit better in the first half.”

Throughout the game, mostly in the second half, both teams stepped up their physical play to the point where Green was ejected with less than 30 remaining in the third quarter on an illegal blocking call. Hurd and Smith were dinged up a bit in the contest as was Fulgham, who led the Titans on the ground with 29 yards on 14 carries.

“I’m a little disappointed in the chippiness,” Grayson said. “We are a senior-dominant team and we should know better. Last week there was some chippiness, but our kids handled it the right way. They channeled it into their play. This week they decided to handle it the wrong way. It turned what should have been a more comfortable victory into a challenging night.

“Because of the penalties and the chippiness, this team stayed in the game longer than they should have,” he continued. “That’s how you get guys hurt, that’s how you have to play longer. We could have come out and played clean and put a couple in the end zone early in the second half. You know, 35-13 is a whole lot different than 21-13 for most of the game.”

Senior defensive lineman Jake Leue led V.C. with eight tackles while Range and Williams each added seven tackles. The Crusaders will host fourth-ranked Antelope Valley High tonight, the eighth home game in their last nine playoff games since 2015.

“It was nice not to have to travel last year,” Grayson said. “Obviously this is a different year. But you know, it’s nice because this division is so spread out. Not to have to drive to Antelope Valley on a Friday night is going to be huge. For them to have to come down and make that drive…we’ll see how they handle it.”