LONG BEACH, Calif. --
Talk about coming out of a fog.
There was a time that Long Beach Poly (Calif.)
sat at 1-3 with a scoring margin of 60-131, forgotten in the ever-evolving Southern California football landscape. The Jackrabbits, regarded as one of the nation's top programs in history, silently went back to the basics in practice after that uncharacteristic start.
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The Jackrabbits (10-3) outlasted the nation's No. 1 team in the Freeman Rankings
, St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.)
, Friday at Veterans Memorial Stadium on the Long Beach City College campus. The final 13-10 tally featured lots of Poly rushing, little Bosco offense, two big-time interceptions, a tense final four minutes and a pea soup fog coming off the Pacific Ocean.
Bosco trailed by three with 4:17 left and moved the ball to the Poly 35-yard line before a missed connection on a fourth-and-7 pass gave the ball to Poly with 2:42 remaining. The Jackrabbits called three running plays before a fourth-and-inches at their own 44, and instead of punting elected to call a quarterback sneak to essentially seal the victory in front of the gargantuan crowd. The sneak failed and the Braves got the ball back with 1:39 left at the Poly 45.
So Bosco reemerged with another shot, and leaned on sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen
, who had struggled all night.
Two incomplete passes, and then the backbreaker: A tipped pass across the middle ended up in the hands of Poly defender John Smith
around the 35, and he took it all the way to the Bosco 15 to seal the triumph.
"I was just sitting back and I went with my instincts. My strong safety deflected the ball, it bounced in the air, and I saw victory," said Smith, who also caught a clutch 20-yard pass on third-and-14 in the fourth quarter that kept a scoring drive alive.
It's hard to think of such a highly regarded program as an upstart, but Poly certainly has emerged from a slew of great teams to advance to the title game, which is next Saturday at Angels Stadium in Anaheim. The matchup against
Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
will feature two of the nation's most well-known names in a what is sure to be a physical contest.
What won it for Poly was physicality in the running game and physicality down low on defense. Hard-charging running back Gerard Wicks
romped for 163 yards on 29 carries and Manusamoa Luuga
added 48 on 17 tries for Poly, while the defense limited Bosco's Darren Walker
to 45 yards on 14 attempts.
"Pound the ball and run it down their throats," said Wicks, a senior committed to Washington State who has spurred the current nine-game winning streak. "All week in practice we knew it would come down to will and heart."
All told, Poly outgained Bosco 218-72 on the ground and 135-39 through the air. The Jackrabbits earned 16 first downs compared to four for Bosco, only one of which came in the first half, and it came via penalty.
To add to Bosco's misery, the Braves punted six times, five of which came on three-and-out possessions.
"The point of emphasis was to stop the run and if we stopped the run
they were gonna be one-dimensional. And if they did that, it suited
our defense because we are so athletic," said Poly coach Raul Lara, who has won section titles four times in the past 11 seasons. "I am enjoying the moment right now. I don't want to stop, I want it to go forever. They don't quit. They are
amazing guys. I am proud and honored to be their coach."
Poly broke the seal on the scoring by moving 82 yards on 12 plays, capped off by Wicks' 5-yard scoring plunge with 3:33 left in the first. The extra point failed and the 6-0 lead stood through halftime, which is when the fog got fierce.
It was hard to see the opposing sideline on the field in the third quarter but that's when Bosco got back in the game.
stripped Wicks of the ball on a run and gave his team great field position at the Poly 26. Penalties moved the ball back for the Braves but they bounced back with a 43-yard field goal from Reid Budrovich
with 7:30 left in the third.
The Braves stole the lead back on an electrifying interception return on the next drive, when Naijiel Hale
romped 64 yards for a touchdown after jumping an out route, then nimbly outsmarting would-be tacklers on his way to a 10-6 lead.
But Poly got the winning score with 8:31 left in the contest by taking 14 plays to go 87 yards, capped off by the 1-yard quarterback sneak from Tai Tiedemann
, who finished 11-for-17 with 135 yards.
Now the question of whether Bosco's four forfeit losses would hamper it in the CIF Regional Bowl Game selections is nonexistent. The Braves are eliminated, so no controversy will arise.
Bosco coach Jason Negro has a young team and should have a quality group next season. But the way this season ended was hard to swallow.
"We just didn't play well at all offensively and I don't know how many three-and-outs we had. We struggled," he said. "Poly did a good job of stuffing the run and forcing us to throw and we didn't make plays in the passing game. I liked our game plan, we just didn't execute tonight.
"We thought we had something special here but we probably overachieved. We are still happy with where we got and where we are going."