When the Nipomo High football team called a timeout facing third-and-goal from the 6-yard line and trailing rival Arroyo Grande by a score late in the third quarter Friday, there was a feeling that the Titans would call a draw for senior quarterback Matt Albright.
Whatever the reason, be it the Eagles’ effective pass defense against the Titans’ heralded thrower or the empty set Nipomo lined up in, Arroyo Grande coaches called the right play at the right time and junior defensive lineman Cole Cunningham brought Albright down for a 5-yard loss in what ended as a 34-27 Eagles victory at Doug Hitchen Stadium.
Nipomo had to settle for a field-goal attempt that went wide, and Arroyo Grande held on in a game where the lead changed six times.
“They went to an empty set, and we kind of anticipated quarterback draw there,” Eagles coach Tom Goossen said. “The defensive coaches did a good job, and the kids were prepared for it. We guessed right on that one. Half the times, you guess wrong, and this one, it was right.”
Said Cunningham: “That timeout, it gave us the energy to just try and get a sack right there, and our D-linemen did a good job tonight. That’s where the core of our team is.”
It took until 3:40 left in the game for Arroyo Grande to go up by two scores on Joe DeLaRosa’s 3-yard touchdown catch. The Eagles had fumbled the ball away trying to punch it in on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line earlier in the fourth quarter.
When Nipomo got a 70-yard touchdown on a screen pass to running back Chris Owens less than a minute after DeLaRosa’s catch to cut the deficit to seven and then held strong on defense after failing to recover an onside kick, the Eagles needed one more big play to help seal it.
Senior kicker Cole Ramey punted the ball 51 yards where it was downed by senior Ryan Madrilejos at the 1-yard line with less than two minutes left in the game.
“That was a huge play by us,” Goossen said. “That punt was a great punt, and being able to down it. It’s always one of those unsung heroes that comes up and makes a play like that.”
Albright was unable to engineer a last-gasp drive, and the Titans fell to 3-3 going into Northern League play next week. The Eagles improved to 5-1 as they head into the PAC 5 schedule.
It was the second straight down-to-the-wire win for Arroyo Grande after the Eagles beat Liberty of Bakersfield on a last-minute touchdown last week, and it was the second-straight loss to a PAC 5 team for Nipomo after falling to Atascadero last week.
Nipomo has played tough in its three losses, taking Lompoc and Arroyo Grande to the brink. The Braves, Greyhounds and Eagles represent three of the top four teams in the Tribune’s top-10 media poll.
“We knew they were going to be good this year,” Cunningham said. “They had a close game with Lompoc. They had a pretty close game with Atascadero. Albright’s a senior. He had a great game tonight, but I feel like we really came through.”
In a matchup of touted quarterbacks, it was Nipomo running back Owens who stole the show. Owens came into the game averaging 87.8 yards on the ground. By halftime, he already had a season-high 116 yards and tied his season best with two touchdowns.
Owens finished with 17 carries for 153 yards and four catches for 98 yards.
“It all starts with the offensive line,” said Owens, who also made plenty of defenders miss on his own. “They made really key blocks, and they were out there blocking the linebackers. It gave me opportunities to score touchdowns.”
Said Goossen: “He ran hard, and we saw it in film. We knew he was a good, quality running back. He was probably even a little faster than I thought he was on film, but he made a believer out of me.”
As for the quarterbacks, Albright and Arroyo Grande sophomore Sawyer May had nearly identical numbers.
They were each 19 of 28 passing, Albright finishing with 218 yards and May throwing for 202. May also had a 20-yard touchdown pass to Alex Cecchi.
The biggest difference: The Eagles intercepted Albright twice, including a tipped pass that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Cecchi with only 18 seconds left before the half that allowed Arroyo Grande to take a 24-20 lead into the third quarter.