The Saddleback football team advanced to the Southern California playoffs on Saturday with a 46-32 win over Golden West College at the Saddleback Stadium. With the win, the Gauchos claimed the Southern League title and will wait for a playoff announcement on Sunday.
Saddleback came in riding a seven game winning streak and Golden West was looking for a turnaround after suffering their first loss of the season last week against rival Orange Coast. It was a heavyweight title bout that didn't disappoint.
Saddleback shot out of the gate quickly, scoring 15 points in the opening six minutes and delivering an early haymaker. After an opening stop on defense, the Gauchos scored in two plays, with Michael Neal rushing 52 yards on the first play from scrimmage and Johnny Stanton finishing it off from one-yard out. The Gauchos converted a two-point conversion and had an 8-0 lead before many of the fans had even found a place to sit. Saddleback's defense again made a quick stop and gave the offense great field position at its own 46 yard line. Seven plays later the Gauchos were back in the end zone as Stanton again scored on the quarterback keeper and Saddleback led 15-0.
Golden West finally responded by driving 54 yards in 12 plays, converting on four straight third down plays along the way. The Rustlers closed the gap to 15-7 when Trevin Kahunanui plowed in from two-yards out, temporarily stunting the Gaucho momentum.
Saddleback again answered with a punishing drive, wearing out the Golden West defense with a bruising rushing attack. The Gauchos covered 86 yards in 11 plays with Matt Brock scoring on a nine-yard scamper around the left end.
It went from bad to worse for Golden West when Saddleback got another quick stop on defense, giving the ball back to the offense at its own 30-yard line. The Gauchos again wasted no time, churning out another big drive to take a 29-7 lead when Jojo Binda raced along the sidelines for a 20-yard touchdown with 9:37 remaining in the opening half.
Golden West finished the half with their best drive of the opening 30 minutes, holding on to the ball for 13 plays and kicking a 36-yard field goal to finish the half down 29-10. The drive sparked a furious comeback by the Rustlers, who scored 15 points in the opening three minutes of the second half. Golden West tried a pooch kick on the opening kickoff and it worked to perfection when Binda tried to field the ball on one hop, only to get buried by a Rustler defender as Golden West recovered a fumble. Golden West would score five plays later when Kahunanui scored from seven yards to cut the lead to 29-18.
On the ensuing drive, Saddleback fumbled on its first play from scrimmage, giving the ball back to Golden West deep in Gaucho territory. Two plays later quarterback Nick Sternard found Quest Truxton wide open for a 29-yard score and the momentum had completely changed with the lead down to 29-25.
The momentum sway was short-lived for Golden West, however, as Marvin Marshall took the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and the Gaucho lead was back up to 36-25. The return by Marshall was the 11th longest play in Gaucho history and the first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2010.
Golden West wouldn't go away. The Rustlers took the kickoff back to the Saddleback 44 yard-line, again setting them up with good field position. Two plays later, Sternard found Jordan Veasy along the sidelines wide open, scoring from 36 yards and again cutting the lead back to four at 36-32. It was the third touchdown of the half for Golden West in just over four minutes as the two teams combined for 29 points to start the half.
From that point forward, things finally started to calm down. The Gauchos mounted a methodical 10-play drive that was capped off by a 47-yard field goal from Aaron Ball pushing the lead back to seven (39-32).
After the teams traded stalled drives, Golden West looked as if it would complete the comeback when it drove 55 yards to the Saddleback one yard-line. However, the Gauchos had other ideas when Marcus Meredith forced a fumble from running back Johnny Hills, and Daryl Wyrick recovered the ball in the end zone to preserve the lead.
The fumble recovery seemed to breathe life into a Saddleback team that had seen its big lead slip away. The Gauchos went back on the attack, mixing the run and pass and keeping the Rustler defense off balance. It finished with the biggest play of the season when Stanton shrugged off a defender eight yards behind the line of scrimmage on what looked like a sure sack on third and long. Stanton showed Houdini-like moves, freeing himself of the defender to find Cody White open for a 47-yard score and a 46-32 lead with 14:09 remaining in the game.
In a game of massive mood swings, it was a tap-out move by Stanton as Golden West never recovered. The Rustlers mounted one more drive in the final minutes, but a fourth-and-goal play from the Saddleback three yard-line was unsuccessful when Golden West ran a double-reverse pass, only to come up empty with 3:34 remaining on the clock.
Saddleback was not to be denied, rushing the ball six straight times as Golden West couldn't get a stop. The Gauchos finally ran out the clock and the celebration began. The Saddleback Gauchos had completed an eight-game run, ripping through the Southern League with six straight wins and earning a spot in the playoffs.
Saddleback will find out its playoff fate on Sunday when the playoff seeds are announced. Keep it tuned to saddlebackgauchos.com for all the latest and remember to follow the Gaucho Dude @SCGauchos on Twitter for any breaking developments.