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

CSM defensive end Hamilton To’o, right, walls off CCSF quarterback Lavell McCullers, left, to force a sack by Colt Doughty, not pictured, to clinch a 24-21 win for the Bulldogs Saturday at College Heights Stadium.

CSM defensive end Hamilton To’o, right, walls off CCSF quarterback Lavell McCullers, left, to force a sack by Colt Doughty, not pictured, to clinch a 24-21 win for the Bulldogs Saturday at College Heights Stadium. Photo by Patrick Nguyen.

While the College of San Mateo Bulldogs were battered and bruised, they were not beaten against reigning state champion City College of San Francisco in arguably the most important Bay 6 Conference matchup of the season to date.

Sophomore running back Keenan Smith broke a 36-yard touchdown run with 4:01 remaining in regulation to give the Bulldogs the lead, and freshman linebacker Colt Doughty capped an exceptional performance — totaling a game-high 10 tackles, including three sacks — by shutting down No. 6-ranked CCSF’s final possession as the No. 16 Bulldogs won a 24-21 thriller Saturday at College Heights Stadium.

CSM running back Keenan Smith breaks loose for a game-winning 36-yard run Saturday.

CSM running back Keenan Smith breaks loose for a game-winning 36-yard run Saturday.

“It was do or die for us,” CSM sophomore Joey Wood said. “We can’t lose. We [were] both 2-0. So, it’s who’s going to win out and make a run at conference.”

With the win, CSM (3-0 Bay 6, 5-3 overall) takes over sole possession of first place in the Bay 6 Conference with two games to play. The Bulldogs travel to No. 7 Santa Rosa Junior College next week in a battle for outright command of the division standings. Santa Rosa is 2-1 in conference play after routing Diablo Valley College Saturday 44-3.

Saturday’s defensive battle saw the Bulldogs get pummeled in the injury department. Starting quarterback Ryan Brand got drilled at the start of the second quarter and left the game with an injury to his non-throwing left shoulder. Then in the second half, safety Josh Clarke and defensive tackle Jelani Brown departed on consecutive plays.

CCSF (2-1, 5-3) dominated in nearly every offensive category. The Rams outgained CSM 392-213 in total offense and dominated in time of possession 34:59 to 25:01.

The defensive battle, though, was much to the Bulldogs’ liking.

“I love it,” Doughty said. “Being a defensive guy, I love it when we’re flying around making plays.”

Where the Bulldogs defense won the day is in never letting CCSF get into the end zone for a lead. The Rams tabbed two offensive scores, one to tie the game 7-7 in the first quarter, and another to close a CSM lead to 17-14 early in the fourth.

“The defense did a great job,” CSM head coach Larry Owens said. “They played their butts off. But we practiced that way all week. And they played well.”

The play that saw CCSF take its first lead of the day was a crazy forced fumble.

Two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs had totaled just three first downs in the second half, with two of them coming on the half’s first possession on which CSM upped its lead to 17-7 on a 27-yard field goal by Cesar Silva.

But CCSF started the fourth quarter by marching 56 yards on eight plays to close the lead to 17-14 on a 3-yard quarterback keeper by Lavell McCullers.

Then on the first play of CSM’s following possession, the Rams seized the lead when CCSF sophomore defensive end Tre Randle ripped the ball away from Smith at the end of a short sweep play and dashed 40 yards for the touchdown for a 21-17 lead with 9:50 to go.

But Smith and the CSM offense saved the best for last.

Things were looking grim when the Bulldogs went three and out on their following possession, including two sacks of CSM quarterback Bobby Calmeyn. But the CSM defense bottled up Rams running back Namane Modise to force a quick CCSF punt. Modise rushed 29 times for 178 yards but got held to two short gains before Daniel Lavulo and Tukua Ahoia got in for a third-down sack of McCullers deep in CCSF territory to force a punt.

Then the Bulldogs offense went on the attack. Starting at their won 47, the Bulldogs electrified the College Heights crowd on the second play of the drive when Calmeyn aired it out into traffic, with freshman receiver Line Latu making an incredible diving catch for an apparent 43-yard pickup; but the play was called back for an illegal-man-downfield penalty.

“Like our coach says, forget about the last play and get on to the next,” Smith said. “It was just a bump in the road. And we’ve had a lot of bumps in the road this season.”

On second-and-17, sophomore slot receiver Ramiah Marshall bit off 9 yards on an end around. Then on third down, Calmeyn went back to air, looking downfield and drawing a yellow flag for pass interference, giving CSM a first down in Rams territory at the 36-yard line.

Then time stood still as CSM left tackle George Moore opened a big hole and Smith dashed through and beyond for a game-winning score.

“Right when I saw that hole open, I just hit it,” Smith said. “When I saw it, it was like time stopped.”

“After I hit the block, I just felt [Smith] off my right side,” Moore said. “It was like a burst of wind flew past me.”

CCSF got the ball back with 3:53 remaining and advanced for two quick first downs. Modise opened with a 16-yard run. Then McCullers hit sophomore receiver Easop Winston for an 11-yard gain into Bulldogs territory.

On first-and-10 from the CSM 45-yard line, CCSF went back to Modise for a sweep play that Maka covered to hold to a 5-yard pickup. On second down, Maka met Modise at the line of scrimmage to hold a draw play to 1 yard. Then on third-and-4, Modise took the ball off left tackle, but Doughty read it well and stuffed the play 2 yards shy of the first-down marker; Modise also departed after the play with a knee injury.

So, on fourth down, McCullers dropped back looking to make something happen. The versatile sophomore quarterback had kept CSM off balance all day, completing 6-of-18 passes for 90 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, but also rushing nine times for 59 yards.

“We stick to what we do and get used to it,” Doughty said. “That’s what we do — we adapt.”

As McCullers rolled out of the pocket looking downfield, he attempted to get to the edge looking to get the 2 yards himself. But sophomore defensive end Hamilton To’o marked McCullers and stayed with him on a tight parallel pursuit all the way to the sideline. Then as McCullers tried to redirect left, Doughty dashed in to sack him for a 3-yard loss, forcing a turnover on downs and sealing the win.

“City is a big turning point in our season,” Doughty said. “We started slow (going 2-3 in non-conference play). So to do this, we’re getting better, we’re playing well. And it’s starting to pay off.”

Doughty — a Los Gatos High School graduate — wasn’t the only former Wildcat to enjoy a clutch performance. Sophomore fullback Joey Wood set the tone for the Bulldogs’ emotional performance. CSM’s first possession of the day went three and out, with a wobbly punt to follow. Wood, though, turned in a superb special teams effort by sprinting downfield and stick the punt return for no gain.

“I like to preach to my teammates no matter where you are, as long as you’re on the field, you can make a difference,” Wood said.

CSM got the ball back quickly and Wood was rewarded for his effort. The Bulldogs marched 53 yards on eight plays, with Wood getting his team on the scoreboard with a 3-yard draw play, the sophomore’s fourth rushing TD of the year, tying for the team lead with Brand and freshman running back Rashaan Fontenette.

Calmeyn — 10-of-14 passing for 110 yards — added a 5-yard touchdown throw to sophomore Tasi Teu, giving CSM a 14-7 lead with 28 seconds remaining in the first half.

Smith was held to his second lowest rushing total of the year with 62 yards on 12 carries, while the Bulldogs totaled just 79 ground yards overall. Over half of Smith’s yards came on the 34-yard, game-winner. Despite the stingy CCSF defense, Owens said he was not surprised by Smith’s heroics.

“We’ve got three big-play backs,” Owens said. “I’m not surprised about anything those guys accomplish.”