Palomar Edges Cerritos, Claims Playoff Berth

The Palomar Comets took advantage of six Cerritos turnovers and got big plays from Strong Safety Josh Gomez and WR Caleb Spencer to overcome a 3-point deficit entering the final quarter and beat the host Falcons, 27-17, November 15th. Gomez intercepted 2 passes and also returned a fumble for a touchdown, while Spencer caught a TD pass for the go-ahead score and set up 2 other Comet touchdowns with long receptions.

Cerritos lost despite dominating in several offensive categories and despite a marvelous game from standout RB Carlos Velasquez.  The sophomore star moved into second place on Cerritos' all-time rushing leader board with 220 yards on 31 carries and a TD as the Falcons rolled up 322 yards rushing, 437 yards of offense and 26 first downs.  They also held a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.  But the six turnovers, particularly the first-quarter fumble that was returned by Gomez for a score and a third-quarter punt muff that set up Palomar's go-ahead touchdown, proved to be more than their strong ground game could overcome.

Cerritos began the game by driving into Palomar territory, largely on the running of Velasquez, who had a 30-yard run on the Falcons' first play from scrimmage.  However, a few moments later Daniel Dixon appeared to take the ball to the 10 on a 29-yard run only to have the play called back on a holding penalty.  That stopped the drive cold, forcing a punt and keeping the game scoreless.  It would also be an omen that even if Cerritos could move the ball down the field, they might have trouble turning all those yards into points.

The Palomar offense was unable to move the ball, gaining just 2 yards in 3 plays, and on came Ryan Hotchkiss to punt.  His kick went 46 yards, giving Cerritos the ball at their own 37.  On the next play, Cerritos QB Keeling made an errant pitch, but Dixon fielded the ball on a bounce and gained 10 yards.  However, four plays later Keeling made another errant pitch, and this time Palomar's Josh Gomez picked up the bouncing ball, and he carried it 54 yards and into the end zone for a Comet touchdown.  Ryan Lux' extra point made it 7-0 just over 5 minutes into the game.

On Cerritos' next possession, the Falcons were unable to move the ball and forced to punt without gaining a first down.  Following a personal foul penalty on the punt, Palomar got the ball at the 50.  And on the next play, QB Tony Paoli lofted a ball downfield that WR Caleb Spencer hauled in at the 10 for a 40-yard play.  Two plays later, Paoli found WR Travis Plash from 11 yards out for the TD, and it was 14-0 Palomar less than 8 minutes into the game.

But then Cerritos stabilized things with a long drive that ended with a Craig James field goal.  A pair of long runs by Velasquez – one for 35 yards and the other for 20 yards – got the Falcons into scoring position.  A 4-yard run by Velasquez got the ball to the Comet 6 before a penalty and a 5-yard loss forced Cerritos to settle for a field goal. James' kick from 32 yards was on target, as usual, cutting the margin to 14-3.

When Palomar got the ball back, they drove into Cerritos territory on a 25-yard pass from Paoli to WR Gene Bass.  But then the drive stalled, and on 4th and 2 at the Cerritos 36, RB Lawrence Letuli was stopped for a one yard gain, turning the ball over to the Falcons on downs.  Cerritos then punted after gaining just one first down, and Palomar again drove into Falcon territory, this time on a Paoli scramble for 13 yards and a pass to Plash for 12 more.  But the drive stalled at the 25, so on came Lux for a 42-yard field goal attempt.  However, the kick was uncharacteristically short, keeping the score 14-3. 

Cerritos then drove deep into Palomar territory on its next drive, but things changed abruptly at the 17 when QB Keeling fumbled and Palomar LB Fritz Tauilli recovered at the Comet 21.  Moments later the Comets punted, sending Cerritos back to their own 18.  But Cerritos drove into Palomar territory again, and this time they held onto the ball.  A 25-yard run by Velasquez was the big play, and moments later Velasquez carried the ball into the end zone from the 5 to bring Cerritos to within 4 at 14-10 with only 24 seconds left in the half.

The Falcons got a break on the ensuing kickoff when the low kick hit an unsuspecting Tauilli on the back of the leg, and Cerritos' Michael Tate recovered.  But Cerritos was unable to take advantage of the opportunity, and the score stayed 14-10 Palomar at the break.

Palomar got the ball to begin the second half, but the Cerritos defense made them punt on 4th and 11, giving the ball back to the Falcon offense just over a minute into the third quarter.  And the Falcons kept the ball for nearly 9 minutes as they marched down the field on the strength of Velasquez' and Dixon's running, and some Palomar penalties.  An untimely illegal substitution penalty on Palomar (on a Cerritos punt on 4th and 1, which gave the Falcons a first down) kept the drive alive, and a hotly-contested pass interference call got the ball to the 25.  On the next play, DL Moamoa Vaeao was ejected for punching Cerritos OL Julian Diaz, which gave the Falcons 15 yards and a first down (instead of 2nd and 20 after a holding penalty) at the 22.  A 10-yard run by Dixon got the ball to the 7, and Dixon finally powered the ball in from 2 yards out with 5:10 left in the third quarter, giving Cerritos a 17-14 lead.  And it looked like Cerritos was ready to take control of the game moments later when the Falcon defense held Palomar to just 2 yards on 3 plays and forced another punt.

But that's when things turned in Palomar's favor.  Hotchkiss' punt went up into a light drizzle, and when the ball came down, Cerritos return man Gregory Smith couldn't find the handle.  Palomar's J.J. Washington immediately jumped on the loose ball, giving the Palomar offense a second chance at the Falcon 24.  Moments later, a 20-yard pass from Paoli to Spencer got the ball to the 3, and a little later (on first play of the 4th quarter), Paoli connected with Spencer again for a 3-yard TD pass.  Cerritos' Donnell August blocked the extra point, keeping Cerritos within a field goal at 20-17. 

Now it was up to the Palomar defense to make the lead hold up, and they came though.  Three Cerritos plays netted just 1 yard, forcing a punt.  The Palomar offense then drove to the Cerritos 21 and threatened to put the game away, but Cerritos' LB Alfonso Auelua sacked Paoli and knocked the ball loose.  August recovered for the Falcons at their own 34.  But the Cerritos offense was again unable to move the ball and was forced to punt again after gaining just 1 yard in 3 plays.

Then came another big play, and once again it came on a Paoli to Spencer pass.  Paoli lofted the ball down the left hash marks, and though Spencer faced double coverage, he was the one who came up with the ball.  The play was good for 45 yards, and got the ball to the Falcon 29.  Three plays later, RB Letuli carried the ball in from 12 yards out to put Palomar ahead by 10 points at 27-17.

Cerritos still had nearly 7 minutes to rally, but their next series ended quickly when Gomez made his second interception of the night.  Palomar was unable to move the ball, and Lux tried a 49-yard field goal, but the kick was wide left.  On came Cerritos' backup QB Kevin Brown to try one last rally, and he moved the ball to the Palomar 33, but his final pass of the night was deflected by DE Corey Mace and landed in the hands of DT Chris Mino, ending any hope of a Cerritos comeback and securing the win for Palomar.

WR Spencer finished the night with 4 catches for 106 yards and a TD, and the other 3 catches set up Palomar scores as well.  Paoli completed 12 of 21 passes for 191 yards, 2 TDs and no interceptions.  Letuli rushed for 83 yards on 22 carries with 1 TD.  And Gomez had a huge night on defense with the 2 interceptions and the fumble return for a TD.

For Cerritos, in addition to Velasquez, Dixon had a big night with 94 yards on 15 carries and 1 TD, plus 2 kickoff returns for 41 yards.  WR David Nichols had a game-high 5 catches, good for 45 yards.  QB Keeling finished 11 of 22 for 87 yards and 2 interceptions.  DE August made a big impact with a sack, a fumble recovery and a block of an XPA.

Notes:   

Palomar entered 7-2, #4 in South; Cerritos entered 6-3, #11 in South.  This was a big game – the winner wrapped up a playoff berth while the loser has to wait and see about a consolation bowl.  Much of the second half was played in a light drizzle.  The turning point:  after forcing a Palomar punt, Cerritos lost the ball when Smith muffed the punt and Washington recovered.  Six plays later Spencer scored the go-ahead TD.  Spencer had 2 catches of 40+ yds that set up Palomar's 1st and 4th TDs.  August blocked the XPA for Cerritos.  Vaeao punched 59-Diaz for the ejection.  Brown entered for the final series for Cerritos; his last pass was deflected by 97-Mace and int. by Mino.


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