Saddleback football fails to finish comeback, falls to Fullerton 34-32

Saddleback running back Jordan Smith stiff arms a Fullerton player during Saddleback’s attempted comeback in the third quarter Dylan Luden | Lariat

Saddleback football almost mounts a comeback victory over the Fullerton Hornets only to come up short 34-32 on Saturday, Nov. 5 in the Saddleback College Stadium. The game was the team’s last of the season in what was a competitive match between the National Southern League rivals.

At one point, Saddleback was down 34-9 with four minutes left to play in the third quarter but ran out of time to pull off the upset against Fullerton, who are the league’s leaders.

Saddleback started the game on the right foot on defense, getting to Fullerton’s quarterback Josh Calvin early with a sack by Joseph Hall. Fullerton was forced to punt, and Saddleback capitalized, scoring a field goal to get the game’s first points.

Fullerton bounced back after their first drive, scoring 13 straight points off two field goals and a one-yard touchdown run by running back Malik Winston.

On Saddleback’s next drive, they started to chip away at Fullerton’s defense by moving down the field. They were able to cap off a ten play 77-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Branden Berwald to tight end Caleb Peterson.

The final drive of the first half didn’t go to script for Saddleback, with Berwald throwing an interception on the 21-yard line. Fullerton was able to capitalize on Saddleback’s turnover, scoring a touchdown off a rush from quarterback Brandon Nunez to give the Hornets a 20-9 lead at the half.

To kick off the second half of play, Fullerton scored two straight touchdowns, one from another run by Nunez and another off of a blocked field goal attempt that was returned for 60 yards by defensive back Khadri Kurns. Following those touchdowns, Fullerton was leading 34-9 with 4:10 left to play in the third quarter. 

The Bobcat defense played a key part in mounting a comeback, allowing no points for the next 16 minutes. Joseph Hall was a huge contributor on Saddleback’s defensive line due to his two sacks in the game.

“They had some big heavy hitters on the offensive line, so I knew I just had to stay low and keep a good mindset going into the game,”Hall said. “I went in there prepared to fight.”

Saddleback, however, didn’t count themselves out just yet, with running back Jake Thomas getting the comeback attempt started with a 16-yard rush to make it a 34-17 score. Thomas was a focal point in Saddleback’s offense, recording 122 yards and a touchdown on 16 rushing attempts.

“It takes about one to two series on offense to read the opponent defensively, and I decided after that to hit the open gaps faster,” Thomas said. “As I started to hit those gaps faster, the holes in the defense were opening quicker and I was getting a lot more yards. My mentality every time I ran the ball was to hit the gaps fast right off the bat instead of patiently waiting for a hole to open.”

Saddleback forced Fullerton to punt on their next drive, and defensive lineman Travis Arena came up with a huge block to put the Bobcats into scoring position early in their next possession on offense. 

The Bobcats started on Fullerton’s 27-yard line, and Berwald was able to finish the drive off and find tight end Billy Durocher in the end zone to bring the score to 34-25 with 12:08 left in the fourth quarter. 

“Our mindset was to really try and keep going fast on offense,” wide receiver Daniel Stokes said. “Once we started going fast, we noticed they were getting tired and we were moving the ball more.”

The Bobcats scored one more touchdown ten minutes later, with Berwald able to find wide receiver Zachary Roebuck on a 15-yard score to bring it to a two point game with 2:13 left to play. Berwald finished the day going 18-27 with 191 yards and three touchdowns.

“The offensive guys on the sideline all gave each other this look and we knew we would find a way even if the path to victory isn’t clear,”Berwald said. “All I had to do was just get the ball into the hands of our athletes. I had no doubt that once we were able to do that, good things were going to happen.”

Saddleback tried an onside kick to try and get the ball back for one more drive, but Fullerton received the kick cleanly. However, the Saddleback’s defense came up huge on Fullerton’s next drive, forcing them to punt after the Hornets failed to get a first down.

With only 21 seconds left to play in the game, Saddleback almost did the unthinkable and was able to drive down the field into field goal range. Saddleback had no timeouts remaining, and the comeback attempt came up short when Saddleback wasn’t able to spike the ball before the clock ran out.

“I absolutely think that we played hard for all four quarters tonight,” said head coach Kerry Crabb. “I think we played harder in the fourth quarter than we did in the third because when it was crucial for us to get three and out and stop on defense, I was just amazed at how hard they played.”

For Saddleback, the final loss drops them to 2-7 on the season. During halftime, Saddleback welcomed all veterans in attendance and honored the football team members that served in the military.