Fullerton shook off the rust in the second half, but a large first-half deficit proved too much to overcome as the Hornets dropped the Western State Bowl 42-24 to Chaffey College at Shappell Stadium Saturday afternoon.
The Hornets were thoroughly outplayed and out-hustled for the first 30 minutes of the game, salvaging a 28-10 score only after a penalty gave Thomas Boudin a second chance to make a 41-yard field goal as the first half expired.
“We had some great individual efforts today, but we didn’t play hard enough to win,” said Tim Byrnes, Fullerton head coach.
On the Hornets opening drive, a controversial call instantly swung the momentum of the game.
Under pressure on a third-and-long play, Trey Tinsley appeared to attempt a shovel pass that the referees ruled a fumble down at their own 5-yard-line. Tinsley pleaded his case, but the referees wouldn’t budge.
Panther running back Quincey Ross took the first handoff, made one cut and scored to put Chaffey on the board quickly.
The Panthers added a second score the next possession when quarterback Levi Plant hit Marquis Wimberly on a 19-yard post into the end zone. Plant setup the score with a 21-yard keeper down the Fullerton sideline.
After being bottled up on the first few series, running back Pop Thomas finally burst through the Panthers’ stout defensive front for a 31-yard touchdown to bring the Hornets within a touchdown with 3:59 remaining in the first quarter.
The Panthers extended the lead before the half on a pair of 10-yard touchdowns throws by Plant.
The Hornets caught a break on a missed 46-yard field goal attempt as the half ended, when the Panthers offsides penalty gave Boudin a second chance from 41 yards out and he nailed it.
The Hornets came out in the second half like a completely different team. After failing to stop a single Chaffey drive in the first half, Fullerton came out fired up and forced the Panthers to punt on six-straight possessions.
The Hornet offense responded as well. Thomas took a handoff on the first offensive play right up the middle for 49 yards, all the way down to the 1-yard-line. Head coach Tim Byrnes rewarded Thomas with another carry and he muscled his way into the end zone to make it 28-17.
After forcing the Panthers into several three-and-out punts, the Hornet defense began to swing the momentum back. The Hornet offense stalled out and could not capitalize.
On three critical possessions during that stretch, the Hornets had a field goal blocked, lost a fumble and turned the ball over at midfield after failing to convert on a fourth-and-short play.
Plant finally put the game out of reach when he fooled everybody in the stadium on a naked bootleg keeper down the Chaffey sideline for a 26-yard touchdown run to make it 35-17 with 4:15 remaining in the game.
Thomas tried to put the Hornets on his back, breaking free for his third score, this time taking a power sweep 23 yards into the end zone just a couple minutes later.
The Hornets had an opportunity to get back into the game still, but it literally slipped through their fingertips. On the ensuing onside kick, Deangelo Ross sprinted down the sideline for the ball, but it bounced past his hands and off his chest out of bounds.
Thomas accounted for all three of the Hornets touchdowns and was awarded Offensive Player of the game, leading all rushers with 16 carries for 150 yards– three touchdowns.
“After sitting out a couple games, I was just super hungry today to get out here and run,” Thomas said.
Early in the first quarter, the Hornets leading tackler Thomas Cletcher was ejected from the game for targeting the quarterback. Although, it appeared he was already in mid-air when Plant decided to slide and give himself up.
Brothers Jakob and Lukas McCarthy stepped up in Cletcher’s absence, accounting for 20 tackles and three sacks in the game.
Plant was awarded MVP of the game, completing 21-27 passes for 174 yards– two touchdowns through the air and adding 50 yards– one touchdown on the ground.
Wimberly received Offensive Player of the game for the Panthers, finishing with eight catches for 95 yards and one score.
The Hornets (6-5) had a mercurial season, beating three of the top teams in the state, but falling to teams they should have defeated.
Looking ahead to 2016, Fullerton is stocked with freshman talent like Thomas that will be returning next year and looking to improve.
“In the offseason, I am going to workout with the backs,” said Thomas. “I am going to help them get faster and they’re going to help me get stronger, we are just going to help each other.”