SAN MARCOS — For months, Bakersfield High drained the drama from its games, routing teams before the fourth quarter had started and generally making high school football look easy.
There was none of that here Friday night, not with Mission Hills leading most of the way and the BHS fighting from behind. But time after time, when the Drillers needed a play, they found one, and they left with a 35-28 victory over the host Grizzlies in the CIF Southern California Division I regional bowl game.
“We did what we did the whole season,” said senior quarterback Asauni Rufus, who was 10-for-10 passing for 224 yards and ran for the game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds left. “That’s what we’ve been training to do. The whole night, it was just like, ‘OK, we got to battle back.’”
Rufus set up his 1-yard winner with a 47-yard pass to Derrick Vickers in the final two minutes, and then Vickers intercepted Mission Hills quarterback Connor Wynn with 35 seconds left to seal victory.
The Drillers play the Northern Cal champion, Loomis-Del Oro, in the Division I state bowl championship at 8 p.m. Friday at the StubHub Center in Carson.
“It’s surreal,” Bakersfield coach Paul Golla said. “We talked about it in January when we started the season. And what’s awesome is that this is life, too. If you work hard and make sacrifices, you’re going to be successful.”
Bakersfield (12-2) made a couple of first-half sacrifices it would like to take back: Two fumbles inside the Mission Hills 5-yard line. The Grizzlies (12-2) recovered both and led 14-7 at halftime on the strength of two Wynn touchdown passes.
“When you turn the ball over twice, you already have a 78 percent chance of losing,” Golla said. “So that’s in the back of your head. But we were moving the ball, and we knew we had to keep going.”
Bakersfield tied the game late in the third quarter on a 1-yard Jeremiah Reddick run — but Mission Hills answered with Wynn’s 44-yard running touchdown on the first play of the fourth.
“Word coming out of (Bakersfield) was that it would be a boat race,” Mission Hills coach Chris Hauser said. “There were some pretty mean, cruel things said on some (websites) up there, and you know what? We come ready to play. We have tremendous respect for Bakersfield and that community, and we hope that (Bakersfield) gained some respect for us.”
Back and forth the teams went. Lameshio Hill caught a Rufus pass along the sideline, fought off two defenders and scored from 51 yards away to tie the game, 21-21, with 10:53 left. But Wynn, who threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 98 yards and two more scores, ran for a 31-yard touchdown and a 28-21 Mission Hills lead with 6:13 remaining.
“This hurts a lot,” Wynn said. “It was my last game in high school, and it’ll sting for a while. I thought we played as well as we could. They played a great game, too. Their offense is really good. They have great playmakers everywhere, and their defense is very exotic. We’d never seen anything like it.”
Trailing by a touchdown, Bakersfield stuck to its running-game roots, getting a 27-yard run from Rufus, who finished with 72 rushing yards, and then a 13-yard run around left end from Reddick to tie the game.
Then, the BHS defense forced three straight incompletions for the first time all night and got the ball back. Rufus’ key deep ball to Vickers came on second-and-13. Vickers got behind the defense, caught the ball in stride and fell to the Mission Hills 13-yard line.
“Our wide receivers, if it’s one-on-one, we feel like we’re going to take it,” said Vickers, who finished with seven catches for 101 yards. “We feel like nobody can guard us. Asauni puts it up, and we go get it.”
At that point, Rufus’ perfect passing night was complete, and the senior who’s headed to Nevada as a defensive back proved he can throw the ball a little bit, too.
“People don’t know that I’ve trained my whole life to play quarterback,” said Rufus, who completed 9 of 10 passes in the Central Section championship game. “I’ve spent countless hours working on footwork, doing drills with Derek Carr, by myself, all the time. People don’t know, but I don’t pay attention. I know I can play quarterback.”
Three plays later, Rufus put the Drillers ahead for the first time since the game’s opening drive. Then Vickers ended it with a pick.
“We’re in a state championship game,” Golla said. “How rare is that?”
Here’s how rare: Bakersfield will play in a state championship game for the first time since 1927, when what was then known as Kern County Union High School beat Fullerton for its sixth state title. The state didn’t hold another state championship game until 2006.
“Hard work pays off,” Rufus said. “We’re excited. And with God’s blessing, we’ll have a state title.”