Trailing in the fourth quarter and facing a third-and-9 deep in Arroyo Grande High’s territory, Atascadero coach Vic Cooper called a time out.
The score was 17-10. Atascadero’s running game had been working all night. At this point, Atascadero running back Marc Martin already had over 100 yards.
But thinking Arroyo Grande might be playing pass on an obvious passing situation, Cooper reached into his bag of tricks and gambled on a big play in a big moment: The Statue of Liberty.
Quarterback Carson Rinkenberger looked like he was about to pass as he dropped back in the pocket, but Martin looped around Rinkenberger’s back and was going for the behind-the-back hand off.
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The play was doomed from the snap. Ventura and fellow linebacker Killian Angell were in the backfield in a flash and were able to wrestle the ball away from Rinkenberger, and Zack Hepper recovered the ball for the Eagles.
“We had an all-out blitz,” said Arroyo Grande junior linebacker Jack Ventura. “I think they were going for a screen and we got through there and you saw the result. We took him down.”
It’s a familiar sight for a dominant defense.
“They got him right as the exchange was going to be made, which was huge for us,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “We managed to get the ball and then we put it away.”
A couple plays later, Bradley Mickey scored on a 41-yard run with less than five minutes to play, and the game was essentially over.
“Jack is a physical player,” said Mickey, who had an interception to finish off the 24-10 win over the Greyhounds. “As a junior, he has great size. He’s going to be really good.”
Ventura, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, has seen his playing time increase since the injury to senior linebacker/running back Joey DeLaRosa. In the first game DeLaRosa missed, Ventura had 10 total tackles, including one for a loss, in a loss to Camarillo. Heading into Friday night, Ventura was fourth on the team in solo tackles. For much of the season, Ventura has played alongside linebacker Sam Ness, who has been terrorizing the PAC 5 and leading the league in tackles.
The Arroyo Grande defense had not allowed a point in the past three games. But Atascadero came out of the gates firing on offense, taking its opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown, the first touchdown the Eagles defense had given up in PAC 5 play.
“At that point, we knew we needed to start playing harder,” Ventura said. “We weren’t doing what we needed to do.”
“They really came out and hit us hard, hit us in the mouth,” said Mickey, who also had 110 yards rushing and a touchdown. “I think we needed that little wake up call there to put a fire under us defensively.”
The Arroyo Grande defense started to get pressure at the end of the second quarter, and got a spark when Ventura and Hepper combined for a sack to end the half. That spark turned into a blaze in the second half, when the Eagles defense intercepted Rinkenberger three times. Cole Cunningham got the first interception to wipe out teammate Matt Sill’s fumble on the previous play. Alex Cecchi used one arm to reel in an interception as the Greyhounds tried to mount a comeback in the fourth quarter. And Mickey ended it, moving the Eagles to 8-1 on the season and in command of the PAC 5 with a 3-0 record.
“We knew that this would be a fight from the beginning to the end,” Goossen said. “Thankfully we did just enough offensively to keep them off balance and defensively we managed to hold the line against the big offensive line.”
“It just puts it all in perspective how good we can be,” Ventura said. “We found out tonight what our caliber is against a great team like Atascadero.”