With the offense struggling, the defense did its part to give Santa Barbara High a chance to win in its first home football game of the season.
Middle linebacker Henry Hepp knocked the ball free from Royal quarterback Chris Hulin and Edwin Rivera pounced on the fumble at the Highlanders 12 early in the fourth quarter. Three plays later Jeremiah Nicholson powered into the end zone from the 3 for the winning score in a 7-3 non-league victory at Peabody Stadium
“It was the ugliest football game I’ve ever been a part of, but we needed a W,” Santa Barbara coach JT Stone said. “And these kids found a way to get it done.”
It was a much-needed boost for the Dons’ defense, which was run over by Lompoc last week, 64-0.
“It feels great,” said Hepp, who punched the ball free with a hand that’s in a cast and wrapped up with padding. He suffered a broken finger in the Santa Maria game three weeks ago. “I hit it with my broken hand.”
The defense came up with big plays in the first half, too. Rivera and Jonathan Orozco dropped Royal running back Khyle Shiffer for a 3-yard loss on a fourth and 2 at the Santa Barbara 17 in the second quarter and Angel Velasquez blocked a 19-yard field goal attempt to keep the game scoreless.
“The defense played phenomenal. It’s the offense we have to work on,” said Stone.
The Dons relied on its running game on a windy night. They moved the ball but hurt themselves with fumbles. Royal capitalized on a turnover in the third quarter at the 36. Runs by Hulin moved the ball to the 16 and Angel Cervantes came on and booted a 33-yard field goal to give the Highlanders a 3-0 lead with 2:58 left in the quarter.
Santa Barbara responded with a drive directed by Nicholson. The senior replaced sophomore starter Franky Gamberdella in the second half.
“We went with Jeremiah because we knew he could move the chains with his feet and that’s what he did,” said Stone.
A couple of penalties hurt Santa Barbara and it punted the ball away from the Royal 48. Two plays later, Hepp forced the fumble and Rivera recovered at the 12.
“I was going all out and I saw the ball and jumped on it,” said Rivera.
Two runs by Brandon Pineda moved the ball to the 3 and Nicholson finished the short drive with 7:19 left in the game.
Stone was pleased with the hard running of Pineda and the play of the offensive line.
“Brandon did a good job,” he said. “We weren’t throwing the ball well, and the wind was a factor. So, we put a lot of commitment into the offensive line and the running backs.”
Hulin had Royal on the move after the touchdown.
“It was really hard to contain him all night. He was one of their best athletes,” said Hepp.
Hulin used three completions and a couple runs to take the ball to the Santa Barbara 26. The Dons’ defense then stepped up. Hepp made a tackle for no gain on a pass play on third down and Dallas Redick broke up a pass in the end zone on fourth down.
“That’s all we talked about this week, finding a way,” said Stone. “For us, that’s a little momentum. We struggled on offense, but moving from here I believe we have a better feel of what we need to do.”
Santa Barbara is 2-3 and completes non-league play next Friday at Pacifica in Oxnard. Royal falls to 0-5.