SACRAMENTO, Calif. - If defense wins championships, then Fullerton College and the College of San Mateo each made their claims for the California Community College Athletic Association banner, but in the end it was a big special teams play that led the Hornets to their second straight title with a hard-fought 16-12 win over the College of San Mateo on Saturday at Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College.
The victory, the 19th in a row for the top-ranked community college program in the country, topped off Fullerton's record at 13-0. San Mateo, ranked fourth, ended its impressive season with an 11-2 mark.
After both teams came up with crucial interceptions inside the final four minutes, the ball was left in San Mateo's possession deep in its own territory and a chance for the Bulldogs to run out the clock. But the Hornets held, forcing a 46-yard punt to their own 40-yard line which Justin Manyweather took and tore through the San Mateo defense for a 59-yard return down to the 1. From there, Gerald Hulett dove over the top for the winning score with just 47 seconds on the clock. The Bulldogs were stifled by Fullerton's defense on their final try.
"All year long we've had big plays and today we could not get one at all. It was driving us crazy," said Hornets head coach Tim Byrnes. "Anytime you kick to (Manyweather), good things can happen and they kicked to him and good things happened."
The play capped a gem by two of the top defenses in the state. Both entered the game ranked in the top three and allowing fewer than 17 points per game. They also featured high-powered offenses that combined to score 95.1 ppg., including 54.2 by Fullerton. But it was the defenses that controlled most of the day. The Hornets were held to 343 yards, more than 200 yards less than their average while the Bulldogs gained 313, almost 150 below theirs.
The tone was set early in the first quarter when San Mateo, which pinned Fullerton at its own 1 on its first series, picked up a safety when linebacker Dorzell Hicks - named the Bob Stangel Defensive Player of the Game - tackled Ladarius Skelton in the endzone.
Johnny Feauto's 11-yard TD pass to Markus Grossman late in the quarter gave Fullerton a 7-2 lead. The Bulldogs' Justin Watts converted a 36-yard field goal early in the second quarter to close it to 7-5 which is where it stayed until halftime.
The defensive classic picked up its second safety when an intentional grounding by San Mateo in the endzone extended the baseball-esque lead for Fullerton to 9-5.
With under seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, San Mateo came up with the biggest offensive play to that point when wide receiver Jared Latu took a handoff on a sweep and then pulled up and tossed a pass on the right sideline to a wide open Rajae Johnson who then raced in for a 63-yard score and a 12-9 lead.
Fullerton's attempt to tie the game on a 36-yard field goal with 3:28 to go was wide right and gave the Bulldogs a chance to potentially run out the clock. However, the Hornets' defense came up big with an interception by Jacob Jones to give Fullerton life at the San Mateo 28. But then it was the Bulldogs' turn as Evan Dawson picked up an interception at the 5 with just 2:01 to go.
Fullerton's defense held, forcing the punt that resulted in Manyweather's heroics.
San Mateo thwarted two prime scoring chances for the Hornets, picking off a pass in the endzone on one drive and then stopping Fullerton on 4th and goal from the 1 on another.
"We played great defense all year and so did they," Byrnes said. "We were two of the best defenses in the state. We were beat up, they were beat up and defense kind of took over this game. We played well on offense but we didn't close out drives like we had done all year but I blame a little bit of that on their defense. They're a good football team."
Linebacker Cody Darrow had a game-high 15 tackles, including a sack, for Fullerton and was named the game's most valuable player while Taj Jones had nine stops. Steven Doughtyn had 12 tackles while Jamarri Jackson had 11.
"Our coaches did a great job with the defense," said retiring San Mateo head coach Larry Owens, who amassed a 130-91 record in 21 years.
The Bulldogs' Cameron Taylor finished with 111 rushing yards while Hulett led Fullerton with 65. Robert Johnson had seven catches for Fullerton, posting 80 yards while Johnson had seven for 129 for San Mateo.
The Hornets entered the game ranked No. 1 nationally and should assuredly maintain that spot.
"It's unbelievable. You couldn't dream of this," Byrnes said. "Going undefeated is the toughest thing in football to do. Give these kids credit. When they were down, they didn't quit. They hadn't quit all year long. I'm so proud of them."