IMPERIAL – The #3 seeded Imperial Tigers hosted the #6 seeded El Capitan Vaqueros Thursday night in a quarterfinal match-up in CIF San Diego Section Division II playoff action in a match that turned out to be nothing less than a classic.
While El Capitan was the projected winner according to many San Diego observers, the Tigers were on a mission to prove that they deserved their ranking.Â Rallying with the home crowd, the Tigers were able to pull off a spirited second half and send El Capitan home for the season with a 49-42 victory.
It was the Vaqueros who drew first blood, receiving the opening kickoff and moving down the field on a seven play sixty-one yard drive.Â The drive was highlighted by a third and twenty-one conversion by the Vaqueros as Quarterback Brad Cagel hit Chris Pearson for a twenty three yard strike and a first down.Â Just two plays later Vaquero Isaiah Cooposcia was in the endzone with a 33 yard touchdown run.
Next, Imperial showed what it had offensively taking over on their thirty yard line.Â All it took was one play, a seventy yard quarterback option keeper, perfectly executed by Tiger field general Chris Carter.Â The run tied the game at seven early in the first quarter.
The Vaqueros started their next drive from their own 15 due to a block below the waist penalty, but once again Cagle converted a third down pass to keep the drive alive early and lead the Vaqueros to a 13 play touchdown drive.Â The drive capped off by another Copooscia run, this one of two yards to put the Vaqueros up 14-7.
On the next Tiger drive the Vaquero defense fought back, forcing the Tigers into two fourth downs to keep the drive alive.Â Both fourth downs were converted by the sheer force of Tiger running back Royce Freeman who carried the ball nine times on the drive culminating in a three yard touchdown run.
With the game tied at 14-14 the Vaqueros provided Â a big offensive push as they needed just three plays to retake the lead, the touchdown coming on a dart from Cagel to receiver Scott Root.Â The score put the Vaqueros up 21-14 with just under nine minutes left in the half.
Starting from their thirty six, the Tigerâ€™s next drive needed a fourth down conversion as the Vaqueros defense keyed on Freeman and were able to stuff the run on three straight plays.Â Only needing four yards for the first down Carter was able to utilize a hard count to draw the Vaqueros offside for the first down.
Three plays later, on a third and seven, Carter broke loose, and with some clever footwork went forty seven yards for his second touchdown of the night tying the score 21-21.
Taking over from the twenty, after a touchback, the Vaqueros once again were able to keep their drive going by converting a third and long with a Cagle pass to receiver Scott Root.Â The next play went for forty one yards, as Cagle scrambled until receiver Chris Pearson broke free and put the ball in Tiger territory.Â Two plays later a counter rush from Pearson went for a sixteen yard touchdown putting the Vaqueros up 28-21 with less than three minutes left in the half.
To this point in the game, neither team had been forced to punt as both offenses had been playing almost perfect, but it was the Vaquero defense that stiffened, forcing the first punt of the game.
With two minutes left in the half, a forty eight yard bomb from Cagle to Pearson put the ball deep in Tiger territory.Â Three plays later with twenty seconds left, Cagle threw a touchdown dart putting the Vaqueros up 35-21 heading into the halftime.
Coming into the second half, a determined Tiger team unwilling to call it quits on their season, took possession of the second half and drove seventy four yards behind the power and speed of both Carter and Freeman.Â Another fourth down conversion by Freeman was needed and it was Carter again racing for a forty four yard touchdown to cut the lead to 28-35.
The Tiger defense, which had allowed five touchdowns on five possessions in the first half, finally gathered its bearings and forced the Vaquero offense to a quick three and out.
A thirty two yard pass to tight end Austyn Smyth set up a fifty seven yard highlight run for Freeman that tied the score yet again 35-35.
A penalty block on the Vaqueros brought back a kickoff returned touchdown and forced the Vaqueros to attempt a long drive.Â The drive failed when on third and eighteen the Tiger defense provided the pressure to force an incomplete screen pass.
The Vaquero defense stopped the momentum by forcing a fumble while the Tigers were driving deep in Vaquero territory. The Vaqueros could not keep the impetus up against the rejuvenated second- half Tiger team.
A punt put the Tigers in great field position starting at their own forty five yard line. It took eleven plays and another fourth down conversion to achieve their first lead of the night.Â This time it was Freeman on fourth and short, going fourteen yards for a touchdown.
Up 42-35 with 5:52 left, the Tiger defense needed a stop.Â On fourth and five, Vaquero quarterback Cagle just barely overthrew his intended receiver on what would have been a sure first down and possible touchdown.
The Tigers took over on downs and scored on the very first play of their possession as sophomore tailback Carlos Villanueva took a Carter pitch and went forty nine yards for the touchdown putting the Tigers up 49-35 with little under four minutes to play.
The Vaqueros countered with a thirty nine yard touchdown pass of their own, a Cagle to Pearson reception with 2:43 left.
A Tiger first down run from Freeman was all that was needed to ice the game at its final score of 49-42.
â€œOur kids just donâ€™t quit, weâ€™ve been a second half ball club all year,â€ said Tiger head coach Kerry Legarra after the emotional victory.
After a tough first half allowing 239 yards passing on 13 completions out of 16 attempts, the Tiger defense was able to hold the Vaquero passing attack to 32 yards on 3 completions out of 10 attempts.
â€œWe said weâ€™ll make a couple slight adjustments, but just go out and play the way we are capable,â€ Legarra added.Â Those adjustments and overall second half play made all the difference.
By the end of the night the Tiger offense had rushed for over four hundred yards on the tough Vaquero defense, with Freeman rushing for 193 yards on 31 carries and three touchdowns.Â Carter seemed to be the surprise of the night, at least for the Vaqueros, as he finished the night with 216 yards on 14 carries and three touchdowns of his own.Â Carlos Villanueva also added two rushes for thirty one yards and a touchdown.
Up next for the Tigers is a meeting with the Saint Augustine Saints in a semi-final matchup sure to provide a pre-Thanksgiving Day fireworks.