CARSON — At times this season, Roger Canepa wanted to curse the schedule put in front of his Central Catholic football team.
It was a gauntlet of physical teams, athletic teams and enough spread offenses to keep everybody’s head on a swivel.
It was difficult, but for a reason. It gave the Raiders every ounce of preparation they would need to successfully defend their Division 4 state bowl championship.
That last step came on Friday, when Central Catholic (15-1) got physical to slow down the spread offense of Bakersfield Christian (12-3) in a 36-23 victory at StubHub Center.
“Sometimes I think our schedule is right on the edge of stupidity,” Canepa said. “There’s a fine line you can cross over to play too many tough teams because you have to prepare, and it worked for us.”
Central Catholic became only the third program to claim back-to-back state wins in the eight seasons of the current format. St. Bonaventure won titles in 2007-08, and De La Salle will take its four-game bowl streak into tonight’s Open Division game.
That’s pretty elite company, but unlike last season’s absurd 66-7 victory over a completely overmatched Santa Fe Christian squad, chalk up Bakersfield Christian as one more quality opponent the Raiders had to overcome.
The Eagles scored their final touchdown on a 71-yard pass in the game’s final minute, but even as only a two-score final margin this game was a very even duel.
Bakersfield Christian quarterback Brandon Jones, the leading single-season passer in Central Section history, burned the Raiders for 380 yards, completing 26 of 41 passes, but the Eagles – who pride themselves on balance – rushed for only two yards.
Conversely, Central Catholic did its business on the ground. Freshman Montell Bland ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns and big brother Reggie Bland, a senior, added 88 yards and a score to pace Central’s 221-yard rushing effort.
And this might sound strange given the lopsided advantage Bakersfield Christian held in the air, but the game’s decisive moment came late in the second quarter when the Raiders switched from a zone defense to a man-to-man.
By bumping the Eagles’ receivers at the line of scrimmage, the timing patterns Jones was using to carve the Central Catholic secondary suddenly disappeared.
“We switched up our coverages and our scheme, and honestly I just think our defense woke up,” said senior Donovin Townsend, who led the Raiders with 12 tackles, including four for loss. “The routes they were running were perfect to find the holes in our zone, but they didn’t do as well against a man defense.”
Jones burned Central Catholic for 235 passing yards in the first half. In the first 23 minutes of the second half, the Raiders – strictly in man-to-man defense – held him to 74 yards on 7-of-15 passing.
“We settled down and went to what we like to play, which is the press coverage,” said free safety Jared Rice. “We like to be physical.”
Rice made Central’s first big play when it still was playing a zone. Bakersfield Christian moved easily on the game’s opening drive, going 80 yards in 10 plays for a 7-0 lead, then forced a quick punt from the Raiders.
Another drive could have put Central deep in a hole, but on the third play defensive back Nic Navarro stripped Eagles’ running back Zach Balfanz, and Rice was there to scoop up the ball and return it 22 yards to tie the score.
“That was huge, but we make plays sometimes that are amazing,” Canepa said. “That game could have got away, and we’ve had about four games like that this year. But we keep hanging with teams and then we get momentum and start running.”
The Eagles seemed unfazed by the bad luck and embarked on another 80-yard scoring drive for a 14-7 lead, and Central answered with a drive that led to the first of two Kenny Smart field goals, this one a chip shot from 30 yards.
Bakersfield Christian’s luck changed when its next two drives were stalled by offensive pass interference calls – one was a push-off by the receiver and the second was for blocking downfield before the pass was thrown.
But the Eagles also made a big mistake when a punt snap sailed through the end zone for a safety, and Central was able to take a 15-14 lead with 3:39 left in the half when Smart connected from 28 yards.
Central led at the half despite being outgained 237-115, but the Raiders would leave no doubt as to their superiority in the second half.
On their second possession after halftime, Montell Bland put a physical stamp on the game with a 26-yard scoring run in which he broke six tackles, giving Central Catholic a 22-14 lead.
Then, after the Eagles made it 22-17 with Nathan DeJager’s 28-yard field goal, Central capped its best drive – a six-play, 55-yard march – with Reggie Bland’s 2-yard dive on the first play of the fourth quarter.
By that time, the Raiders’ defense had taken over, and when Montell Bland bulled in from the 5 for his second score with 51 seconds left, Central had its cue to start getting fitted for its second championship ring in as many seasons.
“I wear last year’s ring for all games as a constant reminder of how hard you have to work as a team to get back here,” Canepa said. “I don’t know which finger is getting the next ring, but that’s a nice problem to have.”
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2150. Follow him of Twitter @modestobeek.