A back-and-forth donnybrook between rivals Live Oak and Christopher came down to the last play with four seconds remaining on the clock.
And it was the Acorns’ defense that made its third straight stand to hold the Cougars out of the end zone and preserve a come-from-behind 28-24 win Nov. 3.
Both teams were unbeaten going into Friday night’s game, playing for not just bragging rights but a Blossom Valley Athletic League Santa Teresa – Mount Hamilton Division title was also at stake.
“We knew we had it in us to come back,” Live Oak’s Keaton Dietz said. “We trailed Sobrato by a lot and came back. Tonight, we just kept driving. It feels great now.”
The grandstands at Christopher High were full on both sides and “standing room only” was jammed with fans all around the fence surrounding the field.
In the exciting atmosphere, Christopher charged out to a 21-0 lead after just seven minutes. Yet, the Acorns methodically fought back with their ground-based attack, took the lead and their defense made big stops to hold off the Cougars.
With the win, Live Oak finished the regular season with a 9-0 overall record and went 5-0 in league play.
Christopher slipped to 9-1 overall and 4-1 in league play.
Both teams advanced to the Central Coast Section Division II playoffs. Live Oak earned the No. 4 seed and will host No. 5 Menlo School, while Christopher received the No. 8 seed and will play top-seeded Mitty at Foothill College. Both contests are Nov. 10 at 7pm.
“This is how Live Oak and Christopher play,” Cougars head coach Darren Yafai said. “Two years ago, they beat us by one, 14-13. Last year, we came back and won 21-19. We had our chances but [Live Oak] are a heck of a football team. We’re proud of our kids. They played their hearts out. Both teams are going to the playoffs.”
Live Oak was led by Josh Gagni with 132 yards on 25 carries and one touchdown. Fellow teammate Christian Hauge added 76 yards on six carries and one TD.
William Rizqallah paced Christopher with 157 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Junior quarterback Jaxen Robinson completed 15-of-25 pass attempts for 181 yards and a TD pass to Terrence Barnes.
“The first couple drives weren’t what we like,” Live Oak coach Mike Gemo said. “Our nerves got the best of us. We were too hyped up. But the sideline never wavered. This group has been through a lot. We never wavered.”
On the second play from scrimmage, Rizqallah roared around the right side, broke a tackle and cut back for a 69-yard score.
Following the kickoff, the Acorns fumbled a handoff exchange on their first play. Robinson immediately rifled a touchdown pass to Barnes, putting Christopher ahead 14-0 just 69 seconds into the game.
The woes continued for Live Oak after it went three-and-out, to which the Cougars responded with a 74-yard scoring drive that extended the lead to 21-0.
“We stayed resilient,” Gagni said. “We kept our heads in the game. We’ve been down more this year. We had perfect blocking for me. It’s amazing to come back. They beat us last year. We had to get it back.”
The Acorns stuck to their bread and butter and slowly got back in the game. They closed within 21-14 on a Hauge 47-yard touchdown run and an 11-yard scoring pass from Luke Newell to Robbie Rael.
However, a turnover on downs in the red zone kept Live Oak at bay. Christopher added a 34-yard field goal by Rylan Antipuesto for a 24-14 margin going into halftime.
That was not enough. Gagni finished off an 11-play, 61-yard drive with a 10-yard scoring run to begin the third quarter.
The “bend but don’t break” Live Oak defense sparkled on three straight Christopher possessions to save the day. Gemo cited the direction of defensive coordinator Mark Dean and the players’ belief and desire as the keys.
On the next Christopher possession, Robinson converted a fourth down with an 11-yard pass to Barnes but the Acorns held the fort on four plays from their own 3-yard line.
Live Oak covered 97 yards in 13 plays to take the lead. The drive was highlighted by a 26-yard Gagni run and a 17-yard Newell pass to Luke Richey.
Anden Rogers punched it in from a yard for a 28-24 lead with 4:54 remaining in the game.
Christopher quickly drove back to the red zone, with a Robinson 50-yard completion to Evan Vernon as the big play. But Live Oak’s Zach Rocha came through with a saving interception.
“I got smacked but I held on,” Rocha said. “Their receiver ran a little slant. I saw the quarterback’s eyes and I was right there.”
Live Oak could not run out the clock and punted. Robinson and the Cougars had one more chance.
A 17-yard completion to Saed Mustafa moved the ball downfield. With 12.8 seconds left, Christopher stood on the Acorns’ 19-yard line. The Live Oak defense was stiff and forced three incompletions to end the contest.
“This is our Super Bowl,” Rocha said. “To beat Christopher and to be league champs feels amazing.”