Mustangs comeback attempt comes up short
Tulare Western threw a late red zone interception to drop their second game of the season, 36-28
By Jermaine Johnson II @Jerm_10
HANFORD – It was a game of hot potato as neither team seemed capable of hanging on to the ball.
Hanford and Tulare Western accounted for a total of six interceptions, but the most important one came with 1:20 remaining in the game. After trailing 30-13 at half, the Mustangs pried their way back into the game, and were trailing by eight points with about three minutes remaining. On third down, they sacked Hanford quarterback Juaron Watts-Brown, and called a timeout to preserve time. They marched all the way into the red zone, thanks largely to a deep reception on third and 21 to senior receiver Mark Smith. Time was winding down as the Mustangs were less than 20 yards away from potentially tying the game. Their comeback attempt fell short as Hanford linebacker Thomas Knight sealed his team’s win with a late interception.
The game was lost in the first half for Tulare Western. They had the ball first to start the game but went three and out. In response, Hanford took their first drive all the way into the end zone. The Mustang run defense was stingy all night, forcing the Bullpups to move the ball through the air. That was no problem for Watts-Brown as he ended the night with 359 yards and four passing touchdowns plus a rushing score. On their first drive, he connected with tight end Tyler Mello for the games first touchdown.
The Tulare Western offense was able to respond quickly, with a strong drive down the field that resulted in a touchdown. On fourth down in the red zone, senior quarterback Elijah Burrell connected with Smith for their team’s first touchdown. Smith finished just four yards shy of 100 for the game. They missed the ensuing kick to trail 7-6.
The Mustang defense almost came up big on the next possession, as they nearly forced a three and out. However, the Hanford coaching staff dialed up a great fake punt that gave them the first down. That play was followed up with a 40-yard touchdown between Watts-Brown and senior Taryn Rubalcava. They connected on a slant route, then the receiver put a shifty move on the defender and showed off his blazing speed on his way to the end zone. Rubalcava was a major headache all night for the Mustang defense.
Trailing 13-6, Tulare Western attempted to respond with a strong drive of their own. Burrell tried to find his receiver deep, but Hanford corner back Jaedn Della made a play on the ball and snagged the interception. Two possessions later, sophomore Anthony James made a long reception to set up the Bullpups in the red zone. That drive ended with another touchdown connection between Watts-Brown and Mello. They led 20-6 with a little under six minutes remaining in the half.
The Mustangs almost went three and out on the following drive, but a sideline penalty against Hanford gave them a fresh set of downs. They capitalized with a nine-yard touchdown run by senior Tairyn Johnson. He ended the night with 189 scrimmage yards for the game. Tulare Western cut the lead to 20-13 with 1:43 left in the half. Unfortunately that was not when things started turning around.
On the next possession, Watts-Brown worked his magic on a broken play. The pocket collapsed and he scrambled right as he was chased by multiple defenders.
“Throw it away!” screamed the sideline.
Instead, he threw the ball up and Rubalcava came down with a contested catch and dashed towards the end zone before getting tackled at the one. The quarterback finished the drive with a sneak up the middle. The two-point conversion was good and the score was now 28-13. Sporting the black and red uniforms, Watts-Brown looked a lot like NFL star Pat Mahomes while he was at Texas Tech. Fittingly, the senior is committed to Texas Tech, albeit to play baseball.
On the following drive, the Mustangs dug themselves an even deeper hole. Burrell dropped back to pass and with nothing there, he decided to throw the ball away. Unfortunately, he was in his own end zone so intentional grounding was called which resulted in a safety. Hanford had scored 10 points during the last 90 seconds of the first half.
The defenses stepped up for both teams to start the third quarter. Tulare Western forced a fumble while Hanford was in the red zone. After their offense went three and out, the Mustang defense stuffed Hanford on fourth goal. The offense used that momentum to march down the field. A couple penalties against Hanford’s defense plus an offsides on fourth and one, set up another Mustang touchdown run by Johnson.
Things were clicking for the defense as they forced another Hanford three and out. But the Hanford defense stepped up as well, forcing a three and out of their own.
At that point, the two teams began gifting each other the ball like Christmas day. First, senior Jordan Burrell intercepted Watts-Brown on what appeared to be a miscommunication between the quarterback and receiver. The Mustangs were set up in the red zone, but Hanford safety Daylon Davis made a great play on the ball and got his team the ball back.
Almost immediately, the Mustang defense came up with another interception. The ball hit off Rubalcava’s hands, and Tulare Western junior Mikey Ficher executed the tip drill to perfection.
A few plays later, Hanford cornerback Blake Beltran made a great play on the ball and got his offense back on the field. That made four interceptions in about eight plays.
The Hanford offense was determined to end this turnover madness. The dynamic duo of Watts-Brown and Rubalcava connected on a screen pass that went 78 yards for a touchdown.
“He’s an unbelievable player, just give him the ball and he’ll do the rest,” Watts-Brown said of his receiver.
Rubalcava ended the game with five catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Instead of kicking the extra point and making it a three-possession game, the Bullpups went for two and didn’t get it. They now led by 16 points, 36-20 with under eight minutes to play.
Tairyn Johnson gave Tulare Western the burst they needed with a 50-yard touchdown reception. They went for two and got it, cutting the lead down to 36-28. Their defense got a sack on third and long to give the offense the ball back, but the late game interception sealed their fate.