By Clay Fowler, Staff Writer
There were copious game-changing plays during Rancho Cucamonga’s 35-25 victory over Covina Charter Oak on Friday in a battle of defending CIF champions, but here are five of the most important:
Chayz Holt’s field goal block and Sateki Finau’s ensuing game-tying 68-yard return for a touchdown as time expired on the first half was seemingly the game’s most pivotal moments.
While there were still two quarters to play, Rancho Cucamonga had been thoroughly outplayed to that point and faced a potential 17-7 halftime deficit had Charter Oak kicker Robert Poage, who demonstrated he had the leg for the 46-yard boot, made the attempt with 5 seconds left in the second quarter.
Instead, Finau corralled the ball off a high bounce and made a key cut inside of the few Charter Oak players between him in the end zone, allowing a wall of Rancho Cucamonga blockers to escort him to the touchdown that made the score 14-14. Judging by each team’s performance in the third quarter, that play likely did as much to inflate the Cougars as it did to deflate Charter Oak.
“It was a 10-point swing,” Rancho Cucamonga coach Nick Baiz said. “More important than anything, it got our guys believing again.”
Randall Telfer’s 62-yard gain on a shovel pass late in the second quarter set up Rancho Cucamonga’s first touchdown and sparked an offense that had gained 46 yards before the 80-yard touchdown drive.
The Cougars’ lowest point of the game occurred two lays before the 6-foot-4, 230-pound, USC-bound Telfer shook off tacklers all the way to the Charter Oak 2-yard line when all-everything quarterback Greg Watson’s fumble deep in Cougars territory was recovered in the end zone for a Charter Oak touchdown and 14-0 lead with 3:48 left in the first half.
To that point, the Rancho Cucamonga offense had an interception (that, coincidentally, slipped through Telfer’s hands), Watson’s fumble, a turnover on downs and a punt. Telfer’s play ignited an offense that would gain 292 of its 338 total yards during the game’s final 28 minutes.
“We needed a spark,” Baiz said. “And we know he’s a big part of our offense and we needed to get him the ball.”
The first of Finau’s game-changing plays – the senior scored a rushing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and the touchdown on the blocked field goal – was an interception that prevented what could have been a 14-0 hole for Rancho Cucamonga less than five minutes into the game.
After Charter Oak’s 68-yard touchdown pass one minute into the game, Finau jumped a seam route that looked identical to the touchdown play, making the interception of Charter Oak quarterback Travis Santiago at the Rancho Cucamonga 11-yard line.
Just four plays earlier, Charter Oak intercepted Watson’s first pass of the game to set it up on the Cougars’ 14-yard line already with a 7-0 lead.
“That stopped the bleeding,” Baiz said. “That was just two good teams taking each other’s punches.”
The second and final interception of Santiago came courtesy of Rancho Cucamonga senior Justen Jones, who was in coverage on Charter Oak’s 68-yard touchdown pass one minute into the game.
With the Cougars trying to assume total control of the momentum, Jones cut in front of a curl route with 1:30 left in the third quarter after Rancho Cucamonga sandwiched a Charter Oak field goal with touchdowns to take a 28-17 lead. Jones also recovered a fumble on a botched hook-and-ladder exchange on Charter Oak’s final possession of the game.
“He was adamant,” Baiz said, “about making up for getting beat in coverage on that first touchdown.”
Following Jones’ interception, Rancho Cucamonga officially assumed command with a 10-play, 48-yard touchdown drive during which the key play was Donovan Harden’s 15-yard reception on third-and-11.
The senior receiver hauled in his sixth catch of the year and only reception of the game on a perfectly timed curl route that was the Cougars’ first third-down conversion of the night. The second of their three third-down conversions came six plays later when James Zamarripa’s 5-yard touchdown reception gave Rancho Cucamonga a 35-17 lead with 9:12 left.
“We have so many weapons that Donovan and James aren’t in the spotlight,” Baiz said. “But they make big plays every week.”