Saturday night at Saddleback Stadium the Hornets held off the Gauchos late surge to win 21-16 and improved to a perfect 5-0 in Southern Conference play. The victory guarantees the Hornets will at least share the title of Southern Conference Champions.
Fullerton controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball through the first half, but a relentless Saddleback team stuck with their spread offense, eventually finding some openings late in the game. Hurt by late penalties, the Hornets were forced to make some big plays to closeout the nail-biter.
The Gauchos opened up the scoring with a 22-yard chip shot field goal. After a couple failed drives, the Hornets responded to the field goal by getting into the end zone first. Quarterback Joey Verhaegh completed a 26-yard pass to wide receiver Garret Reece-Scott.
All night long the Gauchos utilized a spread offense and tried to use speed and space to get down the field, but their horizontal passing game was shut down early by a quick and energized Fullerton defense, lead by Austin Steele who finished with 11 tackles, and Tim Roberts who finished with 10 tackles.
The Hornets normally dominate rushing attack deferred to the passing game. Jamal Sam lead the team with 42 yards and quarterback Joey Verhaegh was right behind him with 38 yards.
Verhaegh executed a flawless scoring drive using both his arm and his legs. The score came when wide receiver Ryan Markush nabbed a tipped ball near the 10 yard line and jogged it in for the 19-yard touchdown. Going into the half, Fullerton seemed to have the momentum and game under control.
The Hornets kept it rolling with their first possession of the second half. After a fumbled snap that resulted in a loss of 20 yards, a well timed screen pass to wide receiver LJ Gainey went for 30 yards for a big first down to midfield on the very next play.
Finishing off the scoring drive, Verhaegh lofted a ball perfectly over the safety’s outreached hands for Clayton Smith, who made a diving grab into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown. The Hornets were sitting comfortably, maybe too comfortably at 21-3.
“The thing is, the game is never just in hand, unless your out there in shoulder pads and helmets, you may think the game is in hand, but it’s not,” Verhaegh said. “They are an explosive team, you could see that in the second half.”
The Hornets were hurt by several personal fouls late in the game. Back to back late hits on Gauchos quarterback Ricky Bautista by defensive lineman Tolu Fieeki and defensive back Marcus Kirkpatrick began to swing the momentum the Gauchos way.
The questionable personal fouls pushed the ball all the way down to the 15 yard line. The visiting Hornets sideline was up in arms.
“I am not going to say anything about that [referring to personal fouls], I did not have the same angle and I haven’t had the training the referees have,” Verhaegh said. “When it’s against us, you always think something else, but that’s out of our control.”
Gauchos running back Myron Buchannon finished off the drive when he punched it in from the five yard line, bringing the score to 21-10.
Head coach Tim Byrnes quickly dismissed the notion the penalties weren’t warranted, preferring to focus on what his team did right to overcome them.
“I will watch the film to see if they were legit, but we played hard. The kids just played hard and they wanted it just a little more than the other team,” Byrnes said.
As the fourth quarter began the Hornets offense went three and out twice. Their defense suffered for it looking extremely tired chasing bubble screens from one side of the field to the other.
Linebacker Jakob McCarthy’s interception with nine minutes to play nearly sealed the victory for the Hornets. McCarthy took the interception 97 yards for a touchdown, but yet another debatable penalty brought the ball all the way back to the Hornets 10 yard line, negating the touchdown. It would’ve given the Hornets a two score lead, instead they were pinned back near their goal line and forced to punt after a short series.
With thirty seconds on the clock the Hornets sealed their hard fought victory with a forced a fumble, recovered by linebacker Rocky Taloa, who had six tackles to go along with his fumble recovery. Verhaegh took a knee and the Hornets collectively exhaled.
“At the end, we buckled down. There were a few plays that were really important, both offensively and defensively,” Verhaegh said. “Even though it was just barely, we just got it done.”
The Hornets will look to extend their winning streak to four this Saturday at Shappell Stadium against Palomar College, game time is 1 p.m.