It's not that Jalen Oats thought there was too much attention on the offensive stars at the 11th Arena Bowl, Kern County's indoor senior high school football all-star game.
It's just that Oats, a South High defensive back, figured he could use those guys to his advantage. That paid off to the tune of three interceptions and MVP honors as the Black team scored a 39-27 victory Friday night at Rabobank Arena in front of 5,280, the largest Arena Bowl crowd ever.
For the first three quarters, Oats' picks helped the Black team stay in the game: The first came off of a tipped pass inside the 10-yard line with the game tied 6-6 in the first quarter. The second was in the final two minutes of the first half: Oats picked off at his own 14-yard line and scampered across the 50-yard field before being dragged down just 4 yards short of the Gold team end zone. A play later, Gold scored to go up 19-13 at halftime.
Gold had re-gained a 20-19 edge in the third quarter when Oats struck again, picking off Garces quarterback Philip Anspach. This time, he finished the job himself, weaving 17 yards through traffic to give Black the lead.
"Every time, I was just trying to make a play for my team," Oats said. "It just seemed like they all came in clutch situations, so it worked out."
Bakersfield's Chris Hannible, the Offensive Player of the Game, scored three touchdowns and set up another with a 34-yard run late in the third quarter. Hannible finished with 58 receiving yards and 48 rushing yards.
After his 34-yard run, Anspach hit Liberty lineman Willie Fidler (linemen are eligible receivers in arena football) for a 4-yard touchdown on the next play and tied the game at 27.
But from that point, everything went the Black team's way. Liberty quarterback Kody Renz, who finished with 177 passing yards, hit Ridgeview's Brock Martin along the wall for a 34-yard gain and then scrambled for the go-ahead touchdown. After a Gold three-and-out, Renz hit Highland's Ryan O'Leary for a 10-yard TD pass with 7:41 to play that essentially sealed victory.
O'Leary caught eight passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Fidler was the Lineman of the Game, and Independence's Kenny Wiley was the Defensive Player of the Game for the Gold team.
This was the first Arena Bowl in which players were limited to either offense or defense. And so it was that with Ryan Mathews, the Chargers running back from West High who still owns perhaps the eye-popping Arena Bowl performance, looking on, it was a defensive star that made the biggest impact.
Mathews returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the 2007 game and scored two other times. Oats, who plans on attending Ventura College, helped the Black team hold the Gold to the fourth-lowest point total in Arena Bowl history. And, as he stood in the middle of Rabobank Arena signing autographs for youth football players, he couldn't have been happier about it.
"It was amazing," Oats said. "It was the most fun I've ever had."