The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

CSM returner Rahsaan Fontenette dashes up the sideline, with a key block from Ramaiah Marshall, for a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 34-31 loss to Fresno City. Photo by Patrick Nguyen.

CSM returner Rahsaan Fontenette dashes up the sideline, with a key block from Ramaiah Marshall, for a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ 34-31 loss to Fresno City. Photo by Patrick Nguyen.

It was a blood-and-sweat battle that culminated in a heartbreaking ending for the College of San Mateo Bulldogs.

After holding a 10-point lead for most of the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs (1-2 overall) were overtaken by visiting Fresno City College in the waning minutes as the Rams rallied for a 34-31 win Saturday at College Heights Stadium.

Trailing by 3, Fresno (2-1) took over at its own 18-yard line with 3:08 remaining in regulation. But Rams freshman quarterback Andrew Zimmerman marched his offense — which outgained CSM in total yards 483-411 — onto the field for one final drive with a simple game plan in mind.

“Plain and simple, just go down and score,” Zimmerman said. “I knew they were going to be playing off (in the secondary). I knew we were going to march downfield.”

Zimmerman struck with a well-conceived precision pass attack, relying on the CSM secondary protecting against a big play. So instead, the freshman QB — 22-of-39 passing for 291 yards — peeled off a flurry of short curl routes, throwing 6-of-7 on the drive with completions of 6, 17, 8, 9 and 6 yards before sending freshman receiver Coltin Velasquez on a 12-yard post pattern over the middle for the game-winning score.

It was a fitting ending to a gritty football game that, for the Bulldogs, was defined by costly mistakes, including four turnovers and 14 penalties for 127 yards.

“We wanted to win but this was the type of game we figured it was going to be,” CSM head coach Larry Owens said. “They’re a hard-nosed team.”

The most critical of CSM’s four turnovers came on a fumble by sophomore slot receiver Ramaiah Marshall midway through the fourth quarter with the Bulldogs leading 31-21 and looking to put the game on ice.

CSM trailed 14-7 at the half, but turned to sophomore quarterback Ryan Brand to lead the team to a 17-0 run in the third quarter.

Then after Fresno scored on the first play of the fourth quarter on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Zimmerman to freshman Terry Toler, the Bulldogs’ special teams unit capped an exceptional day when freshman Rahsaan Fontenette returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to re-up the CSM lead at 31-21.

Fresno shot right back, using 12 plays to drive into the red zone, but an 8-yard run by Khai Williams ended when he coughed up the football and saw it recovered by Bulldogs linebacker Colt Doughty at the CSM 5-yard line with 8:59 remaining on the game clock.

CSM quickly went on the attack, starting with a 12-yard run by sophomore Keenan Smith — 12 carries for a team-high 72 yards — but two plays later disaster struck when Marshall fumbled the ball away.

“It cost us the game today,” Owens said of CSM’s turnovers. “It cost us the game against Modesto (in Week 1) and it cost us the game today.”

Marshall’s fumble started as a big gainer, as Brand connected with the sophomore slot on a swing pass near the Fresno sideline. Marshall turned upfield and motored for 35 yards; but as he broke a tackle and fought for a few extra yards on the second effort, he was being brought down and lost the handle on the ball just before he hit the turf.

“That was huge,” said Cody Watts, Fresno’s sophomore cornerback who recovered a fumble earlier in the day. “Especially our defense, we needed a turnover. We needed that bad.”

With CSM opting to stay with its up-tempo offensive attack, instead of downshifting to focus on clock management with a 10-point lead, both Brand and Owens defended the strategy.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Owens said. “We’re not going to change at all. We’ve just got to execute better.”

“This offense, we’re good and we’re built to attack,” Brand said. “And no matter how much we’re up, we’re going to keep attacking and keep attacking.”

But Fresno made the Bulldogs pay with two straight scoring drives, starting with a nine-play, 77-yard march highlighted by a big fourth-and-10 completion from Zimmerman to sophomore Tashan Finley for 15 yards to move the chains.

A 35-yard pass to Toler moved the ball to the 1-yard line, to which CSM’s defensive line — led by two big stops by freshman defensive tackle Tukua Ahoia — pushed the Rams back to third-and-goal from the 3. Ahoia, however, had to come off after the second-down stop due to a helmet malfunction. And when CSM was flagged for having 12 men on the field, the resulting 1 ½ yard penalty loomed large as Fresno blasted the ball into the end zone on a dive by sophomore fullback Elgin Austin to cut CSM’s lead to 31-28.

The second half was a stark contrast to a sluggish first half for the Bulldogs, who throughout the first quarter managed just four yards of total offense and no first downs.

Fresno jumped out to a 7-0 lead on its first possession of the game, an 11-play, 81-yard march capped by a 13-yard bootleg score by Zimmerman.

After a pair of CSM three-and-outs with starting quarterback Bobby Calmeyn at the helm the Bulldogs turned to Brand who closed the first quarter by throwing an interception just past midfield. The Rams took the momentum swing and turned it into a quick score, as Zimmerman bull’s-eyed sophomore tight end Marquese Livers for a 29-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.

CSM finally got on the board with 1:20 remaining in the half. Brand found a tempo after being sacked at the CSM 24-yard line. But facing a third-and-17 jam, he hit fullback Sione Finefeuiaki on a quick screen pass and the big sophomore rambled for a 23-yard pickup. Two plays later, Brand hit Marshall on a swing pass to the right sideline and the speedy slot receiver dashed up the sideline for a 49-yard score to close the Fresno lead to 14-7.

Brand then opened the second half with a big completion thanks to the ups of freshman wide receiver Line Latu. With the Bulldogs facing second-and-19 from the CSM 4-yard line, Latu ran a fly route and out-jumped the Fresno cornerback for an impressive airborne grab, then stayed on his feet to dance to the end zone for a 96-yard touchdown, tying the game at 14-14.

“At that point of the game we felt pretty comfortable but I guess we got too comfortable,” Latu said. “We weren’t able to close it out like we had to.”

After both teams’ defenses dug in — Fresno and CSM traded three-and-outs, and Fresno was held to a second to punt the ball back to the Bulldogs — Finefeuiaki gave his team the lead for the first time on the day when Brand dumped a play-action screen into the flat and Finefeuiaki bulled through two defenders to clip the pylon for the score, giving CSM a 21-14 lead.

CSM place kicker Jose Elizondo added a 29-yard field goal with three minutes remaining in the third quarter to give the Bulldogs their first 10-point advantage of the game. CSM sophomore punter Tasi Teu also proved a clutch leg, including a 45-yard boot in the third quarter to pin Fresno inside its own 1-yard line.

Following the game, CSM’s two quarterbacks Brand and Calmeyn broke the postgame powwow and walked across the field talking about the next step for the Bulldogs —this Saturday’s game at Butte College with CSM owning a sub-.500 record for the first time, three weeks into the season or later, since 2008.

“(We talked about) just that we’ve got to come back sharp Monday,” Brand said. “That we have to come back focused. It’s a loss. We’re 1-2. But we’ve got a lot of football left. Each game, whether a loss or a win, is a learning situation and we just have to keep getting better.”