The Modesto Junior College Pirates have reached the most rigorous portion of their football season.
The so-called easy games have disappeared behind them, and a few winnable games have been lost. There is no wiggle room left for the Pirates (3-4, 1-1), who dropped one of those winnable games last week at Sierra 35-20.
The rigorous part? Coming up Saturday night at home against American River (7-0, 2-0), merely Northern California's No. 2-ranked team and No. 3 in the state.
"This is a pivotal game," MJC coach Sam Young said. "A win puts us back in it. We understand the gravity of it."
Problem is, American River has grown into a beast since it rejoined the Valley Conference last fall. All the Beavers have done is win the league title in 2012 (8-3), followed by a clean slate this season featuring wins over City College of San Francisco and Fresno.
ARC led Fresno 17-0 at halftime last week en route to a 31-7 win, its second over the Rams in as many years. Tyler Trosin, the state's No. 2-leading scorer at wide receiver with 14 touchdowns (13 passing, 1 rushing), notched two touchdowns.
The Beavers also trot out a productive running back in Drake Tofi, a mobile quarterback in Mike Hicks and a defense which forced seven turnovers against San Francisco.
"They're everything that is advertised, and they handled traditional powers like CCSF and Fresno easily," Young said. "They have great team speed and their quarterback doesn't make mistakes."
Clearly, Modesto can't afford to repeat the mistakes committed last week at Sierra. More telling, the Pirates jumped in front three separate times but couldn't pull away.
The offense didn't operate at the same level reached during its 76-32 romp at Sequoias. A late-game interception led to Sierra's clinching touchdown.
Modesto's chances for an upset hinge on three factors:
1. MJC's first home game in nearly a month,
2. Improved execution of the Pirates' up-tempo offense,
3. ARC contributing a few turnovers.
"If we had taken care of the ball last week, it would have been a different outcome," Young said. "We're more than capable. We can scrap with anybody."
NOTES Kickoff is at 6 p.m. Saturday at MJC Stadium. It marks MJC's final night game. ... Inside linebacker Brandon Camara, beset with injuries much of the season, delivered his best game with 7.5 tackles against Sierra. ... Special teams captain Roman Puppo will miss the ARC game (ankle). Doubtful is inside linebacker Eddie Smith (shoulder). ... Modesto is ranked ninth in the state with 499.9 yards per game. ... Last year, Modesto led 35-14 before American River answered with five unanswered touchdowns to win a shootout 56-49.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports.