Mustangs trample Bullpups’ undefeated season

Tulare Western defeats Hanford 30-21 to end their playoffs hopes, give them first loss of the season

By Paul Myers

HANFORD – Tulare Western accomplished what no other team was capable of Friday, and beat the mighty Hanford Bullpups. 

While the Mustangs (11-2) managed to walk out of Hanford with a 30-21 division II playoff victory, nothing was for certain when the Bullpups (11-1) entered halftime up 21-6. 

Tulare Western’s first points didn’t come until midway through the second quarter when they forced a fumble and recovered at the Hanford 39-yard line. It was a major momentum play as Hanford was running roughshod through the Mustang defense, and on their way to a third touchdown on the night. 

Stand-in quarterback Mikey Ficher ended the Mustangs short drive on a 10-yard scamper that gave the Mustangs six points. Hanford blocked the point after try with 5:17 left in the half. 

Hanford responded with a touchdown of their own when they gave Tulare Western a steady dose of junior running back Luttrell Young. Young finished the half when he took a direct snap 22 yards to the house breaking through several tackles. Nobody in stadium would have guessed that would be Hanford’s last score of the 2019 season, but that was it. 

The second half’s first offensive play was a 67-yard touchdown score on a fly sweep to Tulare Western’s Rolando Holmes. Head coach Ryan Rocha said they had run the play in the game before but that time they just made the right blocks.

“It might have been out of a different formation, but you just have to make your block, the block was there and RJ is just a fly sweep kid,” Rocha said.

Rocha has been sans the service of his stellar senior quarterback, Elijah Burrell, making his offense a one dimensional football team. But Rocha said that not having a complicated offensive package, cuts both ways.  

“If you know all you can do is run then you get super creative at running. You’re not spending the whole time creating a multi package playbook with run and pass so really it allows you to get better at practice and adjust to schemes,” Rocha said.

Rocha found ways to adjust to Hanford’s smothering defense when he called a double reverse pass that bailed the Mustangs out of a third and long late in the third quarter when they were down by seven, 21-14. Ficher, who handed the ball off initially faked a block, and then snuck down field for the wide open catch and run that ended at the 20-yard line.

“We practiced it a lot this week. We knew we were going to need it at some point this week and the coaches called it at a perfect time, I wish I could have gotten a touchdown though,” Ficher said.

Fullback Henry Williams took the ball the rest of the way after three straight runs proved that Hanford was helpless against their “tank” package. But scoring a touchdown wasn’t good enough, Rocha and the Mustangs wanted the lead. Instead of kicking the traditional point after, Rocha put the ball in Ficher’s hands where he was able to plunge into the end zone for a 2-point conversion and the 22-21 lead. 

Tulare Western’s defense continued to get the ball back to their offense, particularly in the fourth quarter when defensive end Mike Machado made a tackle for loss in the backfield. Then the defensive line gang tackled Luttrell when Hanford went for it on fourth down. 

After a strong drive put the Mustangs within striking distance, all seemed to be lost as Fischer threw an interception in the end zone. But a helmet-to-helmet call against Hanford gave the Mustangs the ball at the 9-yard line. On third down Ficher was finally able to finish the drive with points when he barely broke the goal line. Rocha leaned on Williams again to get the two-point conversion and push their lead to a two score differential with 3:53 left in the game. 

Hanford seemed up for the task as they got yards in chunks, and with 2:18 left to play Bullpup quarterback Juaron Watts-Brown scrambled out of the pocket and dodged tacklers all the way to the edge of the goal line. Watts-Brown nearly crossed the plain with the ball, but a Mustang reached out just inches before and stripped the ball out of his hand. Tulare Western was able to all but end the game after recovering the ball at their own 2-yard line.

This Friday, Tulare Western will have to face off against the 11-1 San Joaquin Memorial, Panthers in the valley championship. The Mustangs faced them in the semifinals in 2015, but were sent packing with a 26-35 loss. They met again in 2017 in the championship but were also forced to take a disappointing loss, 45-31. But Rocha says the past is the past, and each game comes down to who wants it more. 

“We know about them, we’ve played them several time but realistically you’re in valley, it shouldn’t matter, you’re playing for a championship…you gotta want it more than the other team,” Rocha said.

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