It’s called snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. That’s exactly what happened in the final moments of last Saturday’s San Diego Section Open Division championship game at Snapdragon Stadium.
Ahead 27-26 on a clutch fourth down touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Zachary Benitez to senior Josh Zander (his second of the game), the third-seeded Granite Hills Eagles had just stopped the top-seeded Lincoln Hornets to take over possession with the chance to run out the clock and secure the upset victory.
But the Eagles had trouble sustaining drives all evening long, so nothing was a certainty.
With 1:34 to play in regulation, the Eagles were facing fourth-and-one with the Hornets out of timeouts. A first down would have allowed Granite Hills to extend possession and chop the clock to near non-existence. Junior Max Turner (who scored the Grossmont Hills League champions’ first touchdown) dove forward and players on the Eagles side began pointing toward a first down.
Turner lay on top of the Lincoln defensive line and it looked like he had gained just enough yards to put the game away for the Eagles.
But emotions quicky shifted to the other side when a subsequent measurement showed that Turner had come up short.
Lincoln took over with 1:30 to play with no timeouts trailing by one point. The Hornets obviously had other ideas on how the game would end, potentially in their favor.
It was a familiar scenario for Lincoln, which trailed fourth-seeded Helix by three points in the preceding semifinals. The Hornets got the job done with a game-tying field goal as time expired and went on to eliminate the Highlanders, 45-38, in double overtime.
A few fortuitous passes and runs down field would be needed to position the Hive for a game-winning shot in the biggest football game of the year for either team.
It appeared Lincoln would be following that script as junior quarterback Akili Smith Jr. (6-6, 205) bolted to the sideline on a third-and-15 play to set up fourth-and-eight with 1:10 left. A completion to junior running back C.J. Williams moved the Hornets to the Granite Hills’ 25-yard line with 58 seconds left on the clock.
A few more yards the Lincoln would be in field goal range to win the game.
But why kick when you can run, and Williams took another handoff and scampered through the Eagles defense to the two-yard line. A shove out of bounds by Granite Hills senior linebacker Rowan Haynes was the only thing that prevented a touchdown, and later proved to be a game-saver.
There were many heroes in this game, as it turned out.
First-and-goal on the two-yard line with 49 seconds to play and the Hive was buzzing.
A five-yard penalty moved the ball back to the seven-yard line but three successive rushes at the huge Granite Hills defensive line advanced the ball to the one-yard line. But those running plays ate up time and the Hornets were suddenly facing fourth down with eight seconds to play while still standing outside the goal line.
What happened next was a blur and many in the stands did not understand what actually had transpired.
Lincoln, having passed up the chance to kick a chip shot field goal by not spiking the ball on a previous play, was down to one play — win or lose.
The Hornets, who had to be wary of the fire brought by Granite Hills’ massive line, rushed the snap on the game’s deciding play. Instead of being cradled in Smith’s hand, the ball landed at his feet. He bent to pick it up, but it kept rolling. Smith finally dove for the ball but it ended up in the hands of Eagles senior defensive lineman Travis Ford.
Ford curled his body around the ball and a teammate stood watch over him as time expired.
Fans saw the Eagles sideline suddenly erupt in a massive celebration.
It took a few seconds for what had happened to sink in amid disbelief.
It was plain and simple. The Hornets had fumbled the ball on the goal line. When the Eagles had recovered it, the game was over.
Lincoln was denied the game-winning touchdown in a stunner.
Improbable? Unbelievable? Whatever word was used, Granite Hills had the answer. The Eagles were Open Division champions.
What’s that? Defense wins championships. It’s true. The Eagles proved it.
“It didn’t seem real when I saw the ball on the ground,” said Zander, whose three-yard TD grab with 5:32 to play in the fourth quarter and senior Robert Petrich’s ensuing extra point conversion stood up as the game-winning points.
“I’m so proud of our freshman quarterback, he put the ball right to me,” Zander said. “But there was a lot of football left. I remember being told in basketball that you can’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose a game in the second half. I think what helped us is that we have a lot of heart. It’s a very special feeling to end my senior year like this.”
The Eagles wound up in a frenzy on the field despite trailing twice in the game by two touchdowns.
The Hornets (11-1) scored touchdowns 80 seconds apart to lead 13-0. Smith fired a 35-yard scoring pass to senior receiver Makhi Gray. Lincoln then blocked a punt attempt and senior middle linebacker Jerome Roberts recovered the ball in the end zone.
It looked for all practical purposes that a rout was on order.
Tied 13-all at halftime, Lincoln later extended its lead to 26-13 midway through the third quarter on back-to-back touchdowns by junior Isaiah Grant (pinpoint 39-yard pass from Smith between two defenders in the end zone) and junior Donald Reed III (25-yard run).
But the Eagles (12-0) dove in for the kill after that.
Granite Hills relied on big plays throughout the game whereas Lincoln was able to consistently drive the ball down field.
Turner broke loose for a 58-yard run, but the Eagles missed an ensuing 29-yard field goal attempt late in the first quarter.
Turner broke the plane of the goal line a minute into the second quarter, but the extra-point kick was blocked, leaving the Hornets in front 13-6 (Lincoln had elected to go for two points on its first touchdown, missing the conversion attempt).
The Eagles responded with an 86-yard catch and carry by Zander with 3:30 to play in the first half. The extra-point conversion was successful: the game was tied.
Granite Hills used a trick play to narrow the score to one touchdown when junior running back Pablo Jackson took a direct snap, faked a run, and lofted the ball into the middle of the field that junior Parker Vance ran onto and ran away from the Lincoln defense for a 54-yard touchdown.
The Eagles regained possession, but Maxwell fumbled on the one-yard line in the final minute to deny Granite Hills potential go-ahead points.
Zander’s second TD of the game lifted the Eagles to their first lead of the game as Petrich again supplied the extra-point conversion.
The touchdown catch-and-carry by Vance, normally a defensive back, was his first offensive play of the season.
“I lined up at tight end, Pablo took the snap and tossed it over to me,” Vance recalled. “I felt like I played a big role in winning. I saw the end zone, that was my goal. I felt amazing. That was our goal the whole year — and it happened.”
“It isn’t every week that you prepare for the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2023 (Carlsbad’s Julian Sayin in the semifinals) and then the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2024 (Lincoln’s Smith),” GHHS head coach Kellan Cobbs said. “It was a great game, back and forth. We had pulled off a number of upsets throughout the year and we needed another one.
“Our defense made plays when it needed to. We were aggressive (on offense), so why not go for it on fourth down? It helps to have an All-CIF nose guard returning. By the end of the game, we were dead-tired.”
But not tired enough for one last play.
Benitez passed for 224 yards, completing 12 of 24 attempts, with two touchdowns while Jackson had one touchdown pass for 54 yards.
Turner led the Eagles on the ground with 92 rushing yards on 17 attempts while Jackson gained 51 yards on 14 carries. Zander led the receiving corps with four catches for 116 yards. Sophomore Tristan Diaz had a 24-yard catch.
Petrich made three of four extra-point tries for three kicking points.
Williams led Lincoln with 84 rushing yards on seven attempts.
Junior Aden Jackson (11 attempts) and Reed (12 attempts) both had 75 yards. As a team, the Hornets rushed for 233 yards. Smith passed for 177 yards. Williams had five catches for 71 yards while Grant had five catches for 54 yards.
Defensively, each team had three sacks, one fumble recovery and no interceptions.
Lincoln generated 21 first downs in the game to 10 for Granite Hills.
Granite Hills became the sixth different team to win an Open Division title in the 10-
year history of the division.
Mission Hills (2013), Oceanside (2014), Helix (2015, 2017, 2019), Cathedral Catholic (2016, 2018 and 2021) and Lincoln (2022) have each won Open Division titles. As yet no team has managed to win back-to-back championships. Lincoln was hoping to be the first one to accomplish that.
Granite Hills, sporting a state-best 21-game winning streak, will next tackle an opponent in the Southern California regional. Teams will be seeded on Sunday.
Division-AA bowl games are slated for Friday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m.