The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
It’s a game of inches.
The College of San Mateo Bulldogs illustrated the old football adage in real time, with a thrilling finish Saturday at College Heights Stadium. The Bulldogs held on for a 24-23 over American River College, denying the Beavers a potential go-ahead two-point conversion attempt in the closing seconds of the game.
CSM (4-0) led 24-10 with less than three minutes to play, but American River strung together back-to-back scoring drives and were poised to pull off a stunning comeback. Opting to go for the win — as opposed to kicking a gimmie point-after try and settling for a tie — the two-point try from inside the 2-yard line was stopped by defensive tackle Semisi Mataele, linebacker Odera Okaka and a pile of Bulldog jerseys just inches from the goal line.
“I don’t ever really know (how we stopped it),” CSM defensive end Soane Kolokihakaufisi said. “It was just in the blink of a moment.”
American River (3-1) was riding a resurgent pass attack led by sophomore quarterback Kenneth Lueth. CSM was sitting pretty, taking a 24-10 lead with 3:18 to play on a 16-yard scoring pass from Anthony Grigsby to Anthony Freeman. Lueth responded by completing eight straight passes to swing the momentum.
“Momentum swung a little bit after that score,” CSM head coach Tim Tulloch said. “And bottom line is they made some plays. They made a couple explosive plays in a row. Once you get one, you want to try to get a stop or get an incompletion. But they got two or three in a row, which just created momentum.”
Lueth’s first three completions were on a quick scoring drive, with a 23-yard strike to Cameron Sampson to make it 24-17 with 2:20 to go. Then after holding CSM to a quick three-and-out, Lueth hit passes of 6, 4, 17, 27 and 24 yards to move the ball to the Bulldogs’ 4-yard line with 29 seconds to play.
Two plays later, the Beavers scored on a 4-yard pass from Lueth to Robert Freeman IV with 20 seconds left, closing the CSM lead to 24-23. Then came a dramatic two-point conversion sequence that started with Lueth going to the air again, with his loft pass to Robert Freeman falling incomplete but drawing a penalty flag for pass interference in the process.
One-and-a-half yards were marked off on the penalty, giving American River another chance. The Bulldogs cycled in a bigger goal-line defense, and it paid off.
“It was going to be who’s the tougher team on that play; who’s more physical,” Tulloch said. “And it was down to an inch. With [Mataele] stepping up and making that tackle, and the d-line and everyone holding the point, it came down to an inch, and that was difference.”
Okaka was the first defender to the gap, one that saw a bit of daylight as running back Joshua Moore took the ball. CSM’s freshman linebacker was guarding American River’s tight end in man coverage, but slipped the block when he saw the Beavers square up for the run attack.
“He blocked me, my gap was inside of him, so I [saw] it open up and I shed,” Okaka said. “I wrapped onto the running back’s legs and I just dragged my feet as much as I could, and it paid off. We got the stop.”
Okaka said he wasn’t sure CSM held the line until he saw a teammate standing over him screaming: “Let’s go!”
“They just held up,” Tulloch said. “They just found a way to fight for that yard.”
From start the finish, the game turned into a battle of attrition at the line. Tulloch said this was the expectation after the previous week, when previously undefeated American River manhandled a strong Fresno City team for a 24-7 victory.
“So, the big question was: Who’s going to win that line of scrimmage?” Tulloch said. “And I tell you, our front seven on defense, they played outstanding.”
CSM’s offense opened with a bang. Grigsby set it in motion with crisp throws to Jeremiah Patterson and KB Boone-Nelson, before sophomore running back Nate Sanchez ran up the back of right tackle Roman Perrin for a 1-yard score, giving the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead.
The remainder of the half was a grind for Grigsby and the Bulldogs offense. The redshirt freshman finished the day 19-of-32 passing for 252 yards and two touchdowns, both in the second half. But the elusive Grigsby was sacked only once, despite being harassed in the pocket all day long.
The only time American River got to the stealthy QB was on CSM’s first possession of the second half, when linebacker Brevin Amiga blitzed the blindside for a strip-sack, a play that CSM offensive coordinator blamed on a breakdown on the offensive line.
“As far as his mindset and his approach to the game, he didn’t really veer off track nearly as much,” Dovenberg said. “The kid is so consistent. He’s never too high, never too low, he just does his job really, really well. And when stuff breaks down, he can make plays with his feet, especially with his feet to throw with.”
CSM closed the first half with a 39-yard field goal from Caleb Ojeda, a spot for which Grigsby bought 10 additional yards with a crisp sideline pass to Patterson with five seconds left in the half.
“He’s good from 60,” Dovenberg said of Ojeda’s range, “but I like making it closer for him.”
Both defenses kept the game on lockdown through most of the third quarter. Then came the haymakers.
American River got on the board with a 25-yard field goal by Logan McCreery with 2:06 left in the third.
CSM took over at its own 20. But two big gainers swung the field, with a first-down pass of 32 yards to Patterson, followed by a 37-yard pickup on a jet sweep by Anthony Freeman. One hiccup on the drive saw Grigsby overthrow his receiver on his first shot at the end zone, but on second down the freshman connected with Fidel Pitts on a thing of beauty up the left sideline, with Pitts leaping over as the throw faded the defender’s shoulder. Pitts landed just inside the end zone sideline for a touchdown, giving the Bulldogs a 17-3 lead.
“I’d like him to have a little bit more room,” Dovenberg said, “but he’s done it all year where — that’s his Monday through Friday. He makes spectacular catches regularly. So, if we can get him where he’s 1-on-1 … more times than not he’s coming down with it. Fifty-fifty balls are not 50-50 to Mr. Pitts.”
But the Beavers answered right back. Taking over at their own 30 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter, the Beavers used eight plays to score just over three minutes into the fourth. The key play was a third-down pickup on a 19-yard pass from Lueth to Robert Freeman. Moore scored it from the 1-yard line on a halfback blast to make it 17-10 just over three minutes into the fourth quarter.
CSM went back on the march, sustained by two third-down pickups — a 1-yard blast by Sanchez on third-and-1 from the CSM 36; then Grigsby scrambled for 15 yards on third-and-7 from the American River 44. Four plays later, Grigsby hit Anthony Freeman on a speedy 16-yard cross route through the seam.
“[Anthony Freeman] a really fast player,” Dovenberg said. “So, it’s easy to lose a guy like that when he’s moving extremely fast across the field.”
CSM freshman linebacker Cyrus Durham enjoyed a big day, totaling two sacks on the day. Durham said the Bulldogs’ ability to stop the American River landslide in the closing seconds was something he and defense have been drilling for since the offseason.
“I feel like you have to lock in and trust in what the coaches say,” Durham said. “You have to understand that we’re the better team and we put in more work.”
CSM sophomore wide receiver Terence Loville was out of action Saturday. Dovenberg said he will be back in action soon. Grigsby connected with eight receivers in the win, led by Patterson (seven catches for 94 yards), Pitts (three for 42) and Anthony Freeman (three for 39).
“Terence is a really good player,” Dovenberg said, “but I believe in that whole (receivers) room. There’s not one guy I don’t believe in. Ball in the air, 1-on-1, they’re going to go get it.”
The Bulldogs now travel to Butte College for their final non-conference game of the season this coming Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. After a bye week, CSM opens Bay 6 Conference play Friday, Oct. 13 at Laney College in Oakland.