Calling it an evenly matched game might not be entirely accurate, but there is little doubt that when Long Beach Poly and Mater Dei match up Saturday it will be a close contest.
After all, we're talking about two of the premiere programs in the state, on neutral turf, in the DI showdown to see who takes a shot at Los Alamitos for the State Championship. Wait, that's right, I meant the winner of the Los Alamitos/LA Loyola matchup, no, actually I mean Los Alamitos.
Don't get me wrong, Scott Deke leads a talented Loyola squad, and his extremely accurate arm is the only thing that gives Loyola a shot, but Los Alamitos has shown that even without All Everything safety Randy Estes this is a defense that simply shuts people down. USA Today has them as the highest ranked DI school in the state and now that Coach Barnes has his offense running the ball there looks to be little chance of an upset.
Yes, I know what you're thinking; Loyola is a school that used 10 different ball carriers to gain more than 300 yards on the ground a couple weeks ago. That will not happen against the size and speed of Los Alamitos, front seven. Running the ball against Esperanza is one thing, trying to consistently rush against the second (maybe third) best defense in the state is quite another, and Loyola knows it. Watch for Loyola to try some play action early in the game. Problem is, the best way to attack Los Alamitos is on the deep ball off that play action. As accurate as Deke has been, he doesn't have the arm to throw the 40-yard post route, and that might be the Griffins only weakness.
Coach Barnes knows that come playoff time two things matter, time of possession and turnovers. By moving his offense to a more balanced attack behind standout RB Joshua Jones, rather than throwing the ball 30 times a game as he had done earlier in the year, he essentially flips the switch from regular season to playoff football. Good timing too. Ultimately Los Alamitos will win the game with their defense, and their offense's job is to not lose the game.
On the flip side, while Loyola's "D" is certainly nothing to scoff at, this is a team that needs to score points to win. Their biggest weakness, inconsistent special teams. They'll have to play perfect football to beat the highly touted Griffins, and their special teams hasn't yet shown the ability to play solid, much less perfect.
Los Alamitos will take an early commanding lead, Loyola will be forced to completely abandon their running game in the second half, and when you are one dimensional against the Griffins, you are asking for trouble.
Los Alamitos 31-LA Loyola 12
Back to the game that should have some excitement.
The beauty of the Long Beach Poly/Mater Dei game will be the differences in the two teams. It seems that at almost every matchup the strength of one team is the weakness of the other. Mater Dei, in keeping with their tradition, is a grind it out, time of possession, bruising offense. They run, run again and then to switch it up they'll run. They don't care who you are, how big the line is, how many people you put in the box, they're going to shove it down your throat. Everyone talks about their line being smaller than in past seasons, but they are quicker too. They'll run inside for seven straight five-yard gains, then pull a guard and break a 30-yard sweep.
Meanwhile Long Beach Poly features QB Cruz Parsons. If there is a nickel twenty-five yards down the field, Parsons will hit it, and do it with a blitzing linebacker in his face. Parsons has shown incredible poise, though that's made easier by the fact that it seems he never gets hit. It's rare to find such a great pass protection line at this level, but that's just what Raul Lara has. It doesn't hurt to have the best collections of receivers this side of Florida State either. We all knew about Derrick Jones, but now that Desean Jackson has stepped up it makes it impossible to blanket one, because the other will beat you all day. With all the DBs (and often a couple of LBs) scrambling around trying to cover these receivers it makes RB Anthony Baker's job that much easier. See the crease, be the crease, because nobody is going to hit you for five yards after the crease.
The key for Mater Dei will be to keep that high-powered offense off the field. The one tendency I've seen is that when Long Beach doesn't get to play their schoolyard style, moving quickly, throwing all over the place, they sometimes get frustrated, and Parsons will occasionally try to force the big play, rather than letting his teammates make a big play out of nothing. By keeping their ground attack (their offensive line should be able to man handle Long Beach Poly's D line) going and taking time off the clock they should stay in the game, and my guess is a costly turnover should be the deciding factor.
Mater Dei 24-Long Beach Poly 20