In a week following an emotional 7-6 defeat to cross-town rival LA Valley College, Pierce football (3-4, 1-1) kept its hopes of a conference championship alive with a 28-27 victory against the Citrus College Owls (1-6, 0-2) Saturday night.
The Brahmas’ offense struggled to find a rhythm throughout the night. Quarterback Jonathon Saavedra finished the night 7 of 18 for 91 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but it was a 38-yard touchdown run by the freshman in the fourth quarter that gave Pierce the final lead.
“The whole week we felt like we owed the defense; they really stepped up last week,” Saavedra said. “We owed the defense, the team, the fans.”
It was a sack by defensive lineman Eric Mateo on a two-point conversion attempt with 59 seconds to play that sealed the victory for the Brahmas, reminiscent of the blocked field goal last week that secured things for Valley with 41 seconds left.
“My coaches told me they needed a play, so I just went out there and made a play for them,” Mateo said.
The game started ominously when Owls’ running back Cordelle Taylor II was injured on the first play from scrimmage. Taylor was carted off with an apparent leg injury. The silence in Shepard Stadium was reminiscent of the Quicken Loans Arena last Tuesday when Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward was injured.
“They lost a good player early,” Pierce interim head coach James Sims said. “I think it changed their game plan, not ours.”
The Brahmas defense made it difficult for the Owls offense to take off following the injury. Linebacker Blaze Allredge intercepted Citrus quarterback Darreon Lockett’s pass at the Pierce 28-yard line and returned it to midfield.
A few plays later, running back Kyshawn Richards would take the Brahmas down to the 4-yard line with a 21-yard run. An offside penalty on Citrus set up a Marquise Mickens 2-yard touchdown run for an early 7-0 lead.
The teams traded punts for the next six possessions, and Citrus won the field possession battle, starting at the Pierce 48-yard line midway through the second quarter.
The Owls offense finally woke up when receiver Mason Mesina-Rowe caught a ball over the middle on third down and went 30 yards to the Pierce 18. Lockett capped off the drive with a 2-yard pass to tight end Sean Witham to tie the game.
The Brahmas offense remained stagnant and punted the ball back to Citrus.
Again, sparked by a long catch-and-run by Mesina-Rowe, the Owls took the ball 82 yards on 10 plays to take a 14-7 lead with seconds remaining in the first half.
The second half started how the first ended. The Brahmas continued to struggle moving the ball, and following a punt, Citrus drove 79 yards on 12 plays to increase the lead to 21-7.
A 46-yard kick return by Joseph Branch finally ignited the Brahmas’ offense. Starting at the Citrus 33, the team converted two third downs, and finished the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Saavedra to Damaris August.
To start the fourth quarter, the Brahmas drove inside the Citrus 5-yard line looking to tie the game at 21, however the drive stalled, and Oscar Gonzalez missed a 27-yard field goal.
The defense would make up for it when defensive lineman Shaheim McCullough forced a fumble on the first play.
Saavedra connected with Branch on first down for 21 yards, and two plays later, Xandre McCleary plunged in from the 1-yard line to tie the game at 21.
The Brahmas defense remained strong, forcing a three-and-out from the Owls.
The ensuing Pierce drive saw Saavedra, on a third and six, rolled out of the pocket.
“In the moment, I just wanted to get the first down, probably slide or get out of bounds,” Saavedra said. “Great job from my receivers blocking down field, I saw a lane and just took it.”
Saavedra’s 38-yard touchdown and the extra point gave Pierce a 28-21 lead with 7:58 to play.
The Owls reached the Brahmas 15-yard line on the next drive, but turned the ball over on downs after receiver Jacob Bystry failed to get a foot inbounds on a reception in the back of the endzone.
Pierce was able to take time off the clock on the next drive, killing 4:14, but Citrus was left with just under two minutes.
The Owls promptly drove down the field, going 67 yard in six plays, taking less than a minute. A Pierce penalty on the extra point changed things. Citrus decided to go for the win rather than the tie, which is when Mateo stepped up with the only sack on the night for the Brahmas.
The next game for the Brahmas is Saturday, Oct. 28, when they host Allan Hancock College (5-2, 2-0) in the final home game of the season. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m., not the traditional 6 p.m.
Hancock defeated Valley Saturday night, leaving the Brahmas chances of a conference title in their own hands. If Pierce wins out, it will set up a possible three-way tie between the schools.
“We have a hard game coming in here,” Sims said. “Hancock is a tough team and we have a lot of work.”