Junior quarterback Johnny Stanton drove his team 80 yards with less than two minutes to play and scored on a fourth-and-one plunge with 16 seconds left to give Santa Margarita a 42-37 victory over Bellarmine of San Jose in the CIF State Division I Bowl Championship football game Friday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
It was a defining moment for the Eagles. They could have had John McGrory kick an 18-yard field goal. Instead, Coach Harry Welch put the game in the hands of Stanton and his offensive line.
"I felt awfully strongly about Max Tuerk and Johnny Stanton," Welch said of his USC-bound lineman and junior QB. "Since they had brought us here, I believed that would be a good way to win. And, if we lost with John Stanton and Max Tuerk, we lost with our best, I'd have gone over there and congratulated them. I felt good about the decision."
Stanton's stretch for a two-point conversion was deemed to be just short, and Bellarmine fell on the ensuing squib kickoff at the 50-yard line with 16 seconds left. Senior quarterback Travis McHugh, who had be-deviled the Eagles all night long with his passing and running, rolled out for one more attempt at victory, but the senior was sacked by Eagles senior Mack Pierson as time expired and the celebration began.
The victory gives Santa Margarita (13-2), the CIF Southern Section's Pac-5 Division champion, its first state championship bowl victory in its first appearance, but for Welch, who is in his second season at the helm, it marks his third state championship with his third team. He had previously won with Canyon of Canyon County and St. Margaret's of San Juan Capistrano.
"There are some marvelous young men who play quarterback and I would be honored to coach many of them, but I wouldn't trade Johnny Stanton for any quarterback in America," Welch said. "He has character, he's intelligent, he's a leader, a good kid. There's hope for America."
Santa Margarita's Drive for Victory
The Eagles began their game-winning drive on their 20-yard line after McHugh's kickoff went into the end zone for a touchback. On second and 10, Stanton threw to junior wide receiver River Cracraft, who caught the ball at the Eagles' 44 and carried it all the way to Bellarmine's 44 for a 36-yard gain.
On second and 10, Stanton connected again with Cracraft for 13 yards to the Bells' 31. On the very next play, Stanton ran up the gut for 22 yards on a draw that took him to Bellarmine's nine-yard line. The Eagles ran the ball on three consecutive plays but were stopped short each time before Stanton could score the game-winner as Welch decided to forego what appeared to be an easy field goal.
But with a Tuerk-led offensive line whose members average 299 pounds, it might have been a relatively easy call.
"We've been in that situation a lot of times, being one-yard out, two-yards out, and going for it," Stanton said of his coach's decision. "We've had the experience this season to be able to do that. Our line really led us down the field. They led us on that one play, to get us in the end zone. I feel like they're the ones who won the championship."
Stanton completed 14 of 25 passes for 306 yards and four touchdowns. He carried 20 times for 69 yards and two more touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter. Cracraft finished with eight catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns.
Bellarmine Rallies for Late Lead
Running back Justin Taliaferro had culminated a 13-play, 74-yard drive with a one-yard walkover to bring Bellarmine (12-2) to a 36-36 tie with 1:46 left to play, and McHugh's PAT kick barely eluded being blocked by junior Connor O'Brien and senior Zach Bonte, as the Bells took a one-point lead, 37-36.
The Eagles had called timeout the play before the touchdown, and Welch told his defense to let Bellarmine score so they could get the ball back with enough time to drive down the field.
The Eagles had scored 15 points in 60 seconds to take a 36-30 lead with 6:52 left in the fourth quarter.
After senior linebacker Matt Andersen intercepted McHugh's pass at Bellarmine's 17-yard line and returned it to the one, Stanton carried it in for a touchdown, then added a two-point conversion to turn the game around for the Eagles. McHugh, who was simply looking to throw the ball away rather than being sacked inside his five-yard line, instead found Andersen.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," Anderson said. "It was an all-around team effort, we had great pressure on the quarterback. Their offense was so tough, they kept wearing on us. They weren't giving up and neither were we."
Only seconds earlier, O'Brien had caught a 32-yard scoring pass from Stanton on third-and-12 to bring Santa Margarita to within 30-28 after McGrory's PAT kick with 7:52 left to play. On the drive, which was helped along by a pass interference call against the Bells, Stanton completed a 20-yard pass to Cracraft to the Bellarmine 38.
Taliaferro took a pitch from McHugh and barreled through Santa Margarita's defense for a three-yard touchdown, and though McHugh missed his PAT kick, the Bells held a 30-21 lead with 9:50 to play. On the drive, McHugh connected with Tim Crawley on a back-side screen pass that the running back carried 28 yards to Santa Margarita's eight-yard line. That was preceded by McHugh's gallop around the right side for 18 yards to the Eagles 32.
Eagles Have Tough Time in Third Quarter
Santa Margarita junior Ryan Wolpin had taken the second-half kickoff 55 yards to Bellarmine's 40-yard line, but a blocking penalty against the Eagles brought the ball back to Santa Margarita's 22.
That would be the highlight of the third quarter for the Eagles, who, from there, were flagged for holding and Stanton was sacked at the three-yard line. Two incomplete passes followed by a punt gave the ball to Bellarmine.
Eleven plays and 53 yards later, after the Bells had reached Santa Margarita's seven-yard line, the Eagles' defense stiffened and McHugh had to settle for a 24-yard field goal that gave Bellarmine a 24-21 lead with 4:06 left in the third quarter.
The Eagles' gave up the ball on their next possession when they fumbled for the third time, but their defense held the Bells in check. The teams exchanged punts before the start of the fourth quarter. Santa Margarita's offense couldn't get anything going against the Bells, who held the Eagles without a first down in the third quarter.
Bellarmine Ties Score Just Before Halftime
With 3:15 left in the first half, McHugh escaped pressure from Santa Margarita's defense by rolling to his right and he eventually found running back Conner Jauch alone in the end zone with a 40-yard pass to tie the score at 21-21 after McHugh's third PAT kick of the game.
On the Eagles' ensuing possession, Stanton completed a pass to Cracraft over the middle, but the wide receiver fumbled the ball and Jauch recovered on Santa Margarita's 39-yard line, setting up the Bells to take the lead before intermission. Bellarmine drove to the Eagles' 14, and facing a fourth-and-one with the clock winding down, McHugh completed a pass to Greg Kentner, who couldn't get out of bounds at the 12 before the first-half clock expired.
Stanton had given Santa Margarita a 21-14 lead when the connected with Cracraft on the duo's second touchdown of the game, this one from 10 yards, and McGrory made his PAT kick with 6:33 left in the second quarter. On the drive, the Eagles converted on a fourth-and-two from Bellarmine's 30 when Stanton plowed through the line for two yards. He then flipped an 18-yard pass to Cracraft on the next play, setting up the scoring toss.
Bellarmine, the Central Coast Section's Open Division champion, had converted its own fourth-down play when McHugh broke through the line of scrimmage and carried the ball 46 yards for a touchdown with 11:11 left in the second quarter. His PAT kick tied the score at 14-14.
Stanton escaped blitz pressure and fired a 41-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Sean Modster with 2:18 left in the first quarter and McGrory's PAT kick gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead heading into the second quarter. It was Stanton's sixth consecutive pass completion to open the game.
The Eagles got the ball back after stopping Bellarmine on a fourth-and-four from Santa Margarita's 35-yard line when Bells running back Tim Crawley was dropped for a one-yard loss by senior Konner Kafentzis. McHugh had connected with Alex Manigo on a 37-yard pass play on the drive.
Stanton Gets Santa Margarita on the Board
Stanton tied the score at 7-7 when he hooked up with Cracraft on a 31-yard touchdown pass and McGrory connected on his PAT kick with 6:52 left in the quarter. On the drive, Stanton hit Cracraft on a 30-yard pass that took the ball from the Eagles' 34 to Bellarmine's 36.
Bellarmine scored first when running back Jauch took a pitchout from McHugh on an option play and carried it 13 yards for a touchdown with 9:08 left in the first quarter. McHugh's PAT kick gave the Bells a 7-0 lead.
Santa Margarita had stopped the Bells on three plays from scrimmage to open the game to force a punt, but the Eagles gave the ball right back to Bellarmine on the their 17-yard line on a fumbled handoff attempt.
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