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Tank runs dry: Cougars fall in Western State Bowl

Ineffective second half dooms COC

Posted: November 21, 2009 10:59 p.m.
Updated: November 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
MISSION VIEJO - If the College of the Canyons football team was going to send its sophomores out on a winning note in the Western State Bowl, it would need major help from its offense.

Unfortunately for the Cougars, it only got one half's worth in a 31-20 loss at Saddleback College on Saturday.

Saddleback (9-2) shut down the run for COC (6-5), and by the second half, it had taken its toll. The Gauchos put up 14 points in the fourth quarter as an exhausted Cougars defense had nothing left in the tank.

"They run the ball really well, and defended our run really well," said Saddleback head coach Mark McElroy. "We didn't want them to make big plays with their option and some of the things they do well."
Eventually, his plan worked.

Cougars quarterback Eric Brown was the team's leading rusher in the first half, netting 50 yards with the very option McElroy worried about. But he was the only one having much success running the ball.

For the most part, the Cougars' running game was stifled, and as soon COC running back Ryan Zirbel took a handoff or caught a pitch, he was quickly surrounded.

"It was difficult, they were flying all over the field," Zirbel said. "I mean hats off to them. They were coming in from all over the field, and they did a really good job of bringing the pressure."

Zirbel finished the game with 60 yards on 15 carries.

But COC responded with one of its best passing performances of the season in the first half.

Brown again helped to do his part early, connecting with wide receiver D.J. Stephens and tight end Mychal Rivera four times each before the break.

Brown finished the half 9-of-16 passing for 166 yards and two touchdowns, one each to Stephens and Rivera.

A pair of field goals by James Rodriguez from 31 and 47 yards out gave the Cougars a 20-14 lead at the half.

Meanwhile, Saddleback's first half only showed flashes of the offense that averaged 38 points per game coming into the contest.

After three Cougar interceptions and an injury to Saddleback quarterback Brad Curtis, McElroy brought backup David Ingram into the game near the end of the first quarter.

"You hate to get the call for that reason," Ingram said, referring to his teammate's injury, "But I was just really happy have a chance to help my team win."

He began doing just that, shaking off an early interception - his team's fourth turnover of the half - to throw a touchdown strike to wide receiver Aziz Spellman-Smith.

In the second half, COC's inability to run the ball began to take its toll.

The Cougar defense held strong in the third quarter. Saddleback was only able to net a 35-yard field goal on a short field set up by a Jai Morris punt return to cut the lead to 20-17.

However, after four fruitless COC possessions, frustration began to set in.

Needing just to run the ball to maintain the lead and run down the clock, the Cougars couldn't.

Three-and-out after three-and-out left the Cougars' defense on the field for eight minutes longer than its counterpart.

"Silly mistakes," said COC head coach Garett Tujague, trying to explain the second-half collapse. "I think their staff did a great job of adjusting to what we were trying to do."

Tujague also noted how banged up the defensive line was, and how well they played despite injuries. But in the end, they just didn't have enough help.

In the fourth quarter, the Gauchos were able to capitalize.

In the last six minute of the game, Ingram began to find himself with time in the pocket.

He hit wide receiver T.J. Knowles for a 34-yard reception to set up a score. Ingram then snuck in on a 3-yard keeper with 6:31 left in the fourth to put Saddleback ahead for good 24-20.

He led successive touchdown drives on his way to most valuable player honors, capping the second with a handoff to Kory Johnson for a 4-yard run to make the final score.

Tujague said he saw a lot of good things for next year in this group, but in the end the offense just wasn't able to sustain a drive.

"I think our effort shocked them a little bit," Tujague said. "We just weren't able to finish."


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