CARSON — You want to be at your best in the biggest games.
That wasn’t the case for Bakersfield Christian on Friday evening.
Hurt by turnovers and other mistakes, the Eagles lost 36-23 to Modesto-Central Catholic in the CIF state Division IV championship at the StubHub Center.
"We picked the championship game to play our worst game of the year,” said Eagles coach Jerald Pierucci. “You can’t turn the ball over four times and expect to win a championship game. You can’t make the mental mistakes we made tonight and expect to win a championship.”
Central Catholic (15-1) made it back-to-back Division IV state championships.
Bakersfield Christian quarterback Brandon Jones threw for 380 yards, setting a Central Section record with 4,360 passing yards this season. The former record was 4,187 set by Tulare’s Emmanuel Lewis in 2005. Jones’ two TD passes tied the section mark of 54 set earlier this season by Farmersville’s Sam Metcalf.
But the Raiders offset Jones’ passing by stopping the Eagles’ ground game cold.
The Eagles finished with 2 total yards of rushing offense and junior Matt Smith, who came into the game with 1,567 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, had only 27 yards, with a longest run of 6 yards.
The Eagles drove 80 yards on their first possession with Jones hitting Hayden Kuchta with a 5-yard touchdown pass with 9:54 left in the first quarter.
After forcing a Central Catholic punt, Eagles’ receiver Zach Balfanz fumbled on an end around, and Raiders’ free safety Jared Rice scooped it up and ran 22 yards to tie it up. It was the first of two lost fumbles by the Eagles.
“We had a chance to put the hammer down, and we fumbled for a touchdown,” Pierucci said.
The mistakes kept mounting.
In the second quarter with Bakersfield Christian up 14-10, the Eagles lined up to punt from its own end zone. The snap sailed over Nathan DeJager’s head for a safety..
Later in the quarter, Central Catholic’s Kenny Smart kicked his second field goal of the game for a 15-14 lead. The Raiders never trailed after that.
Field position heavily favored Central Catholic all night. Of the Raiders’ 11 possessions, six began inside BCHS territory and three others began within five yards of midfield.
The Eagles had 12 drives. Eight began at their own 20, another at their own 11 and none started past the BCHS 29.
Ultimately, the Eagles’ biggest problem was scoring touchdowns.
Jones had a 2-yard TD run with 2:56 left in the second quarter to give the them a 14-7 lead. But the Eagles didn’t get into the end zone again until Jones completed a 71-yard scoring pass to Josh Jackson with 34 seconds left in the game.
After throwing for 161 yards in the first quarter, Jones threw for only 73 yards in the second quarter and 54 in the third. He was 26-of-41 with an interception for the 380 yards.
“They dropped more guys (into coverage in the second half) but I was making terrible reads,” Jones said. “I just came out and wasn’t sharp. I don’t know what it was.”
Kuchta had eight catches for 116 yards and Jackson had five for 132.
“I’ll remember this forever,” Kuchta said. “We battled all season long. We were never the biggest, never the most athletic but we always gave 100 percent.”
BCHS kicker Nathan DeJager set a Central Section record with 94 extra point kicks, topping the old mark of 92 held by Clovis West’s Aaron Johnson.
Central Catholic’s run-stopping success and the dropoff in BCHS’ passing game added the pressure on the Eagles’ defense.
And as the second half progressed, Central Catholic pounded the ball and consistently drove for first downs.
The dagger may have been a 24-yard touchdown run by freshman Montell Bland with 5:34 left in the third quarter that extended the Raiders’ lead to 22-14.
Bland seemed to run through the entire Eagles’ defense and literally carried four or five tacklers the final five yards into the end zone.
“That was all on our offense,” Pierucci said. “I think we went three times three-and-out, or maybe we got one first down.
“That puts our defense against that style of offense on the field too much. That’s attributed to our offense not executing.
That was the difference. Our defense was on the field way too much in the second half.”
Bland had a game-high 103 yards on 16 carries and added a 5-yard touchdown run with 51 seconds left in the game. His older brother Reggie Bland, a senior, had 88 yards on 17 carries including a 3-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter.
The Raiders finished with 221 rushing yards despite the absence of senior Matt Ringer, who missed the game with a deep thigh bruise. Ringer had more than 2,000 yards and 33 TDs this season.
“I pretty much knew Monday we wouldn’t have him,” Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa said. “We started getting other guys reps. I told them (the Bland brothers) that we’ll rotate and rest them on offense. I knew they could move the ball and they did a great job.”
Central Catholic attempted only seven passes, and only two passes in the second half.
“We are going to do what we do best,” Canepa said.
“This is the greatest stage in high school football,” Jones said. “It sucks to come up short.”
“I think some of my juniors: the game got a little bigger than them,” Pierucci said. “But this is an experience they’ll never forget. If this doesn’t drive you to get to the next level, you’ve got to question what you’re doing on the field.”
Modesto-Central Catholic 36, BCHS 23
Central Catholic 10 5 7 14—36
Bakersfield Christian 14 0 3 6—23
BCHS—Kuchta 5 pass from Jones (DeJager kick)
CC—Rice 22 fumble return (Smart kick)
BCHS—Jones 2 run (DeJager kick)
CC—Smart 30 FG
CC—Safety (ball snapped out of end zone on punt play)
CC—Smart 28 FG
CC—M.Bland 26 run (Smart kick)
BCHS—DeJager 28 FG
CC—R.Bland 3 run (Smart kick)
CC—M.Bland 5 run (Smart kick)
BCHS—Jackson 71 pass from Jones (pass failed)
RUSHING—CC: M.Bland 16-103; R.Bland 17-88, Petlansky 6-16, Hernandez 3-7, Townsend 1-7, Rice 1-1, Ajayi 1-0, team 1-(-1). BCHS: Smith 13-27, Jones 5-2, Blank 1-1, Balfanz 2-(-10), team 2-(-18).
PASSING—CC: Petlansky 3-7-0, 34. BCHS: Jones 26-41-1, 380.
RECEIVING—CC: Rice 1-15, Townsend 1-10, Hernandez 1-9. BCHS: Kuchta 8-116, Balfanz 6-68, Harris 6-63, Jackson 5-132, Smith 1-1.
W-L: Central Catholic 15-1, BCHS 12-3.