SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Hosting Orange Coast in Friday's regular season finale at La Playa Stadium, the SBCC football team had its most prolific night yet in the return game, taking three kicks back for touchdowns within a span of five minutes in a 49-19 win.
The Vaqueros improved to a 3-0 mark in November and 7-3 overall, tied for their best record over the past 17 seasons.
"We've always been pretty good on kick returns and special teams in general, but this year is special. It just is," head coach Craig Moropoulos said. "Those special teams returns were magic."
In arguably his most electrifying performance of the season, wide receiver Marcus Bellon accounted for three of SBCC's seven touchdowns, finding the end zone a different way each time. First, he did his best Franco Harris impersonation, snagging the ball out of the air after a deflected pass fell right to him inside the 10. His 18-yard reception opened the scoring in the second quarter.
"That kid is just something else. He's always around the ball," said Moropoulos. "It was unfortunate that it got batted, but when he picked it up it didn't surprise me because that guy just makes plays. He's a gamer."
With SBCC leading 21-6 early in the fourth, Bellon pulled in a booming 50-yard punt at the 16-yard line with his momentum carrying him towards his own end zone. Then, he suddenly turned it up field, zipping through the Pirate punt coverage and getting some key blocks down the sideline to tally his fourth punt return touchdown of the year. No other SCFA returner has more than one punt return touchdown this season.
Less than four minutes later, as if shot out of a cannon, the Truckee, CA native caught a kickoff on the run from the 10 and left no doubt who the fastest player on the field was as he went untouched 90 yards to score. That was his second kickoff return score and team-leading 10th touchdown in 2021.
Speaking of cannons, just 65 seconds after Bellon's second return TD, defensive back Jamari Cannon got in on the action as well, scooping up a short punt on the run and going 56 yards to the house.
Through 10 games, Santa Barbara is the only team in the Southern California Football Association to average over 20 yards per punt return (23.6). Bellon leads all players in both punt (21.7) and kickoff return (32.5) averages.
"Those returns have been huge for us all season. We've done a really good job, and special teams is just something that we emphasize," Moropoulos said. "It's not offense or defense – it's offense, defense and special teams. Our special teams coordinator Jackson Weed does a fantastic job with them. It's the guys who are doing it, it's the coaches who are coaching it, and it's just that we make it important. And look what it's done for us."
While it was smooth sailing for much of the night, that's not how things started. SBCC's offense was shaky in the opening period with three straight three-and-outs. The Pirates controlled the game early by pounding away with their run game, setting themselves up with a 39-yard field goal. However, the Vaqueros broke through the line to block it.
On Santa Barbara's fifth possession of the opening half, runningback Jerry Martin opened the drive with runs of 19, 20, eight and six. That seemed to swing the momentum in the Vaqueros' favor as they started to look like the team that was averaging nearly 37 points per game over the previous two months. The drive was capped by Bellon's fourth receiving touchdown of the year.
The Vaqueros remained in rhythm over the next two drives, going 155 yards on 14 plays for two touchdowns. Quarterback Alex Johnson threw a 20-yard dime to receiver Keyon Grayer for his second score of the season. Runningback Omari Taylor ducked under two defenders for a seven-yard scamper to make it 21-0.
"Offensively, the turning point for us was when Jerry Martin started hitting a couple of those runs. That really loosened everybody up," Moropoulos said. "When we start moving, we move pretty fast. When Jerry started hitting those runs, it kind of got us into our game and took the heat off us a little bit. That was big for us."
Johnson went for 218 yards and three touchdowns on a 14-of-25 passing night. He posted a passer rating of 108 over his last three games of the regular season, tossing eight touchdowns with just one interception.
His last touchdown pass of the day went to receiver Chase Wells, who made a remarkable grab snatching a would-be interception out of a defender's hands on a nine-yard back shoulder route. Wells had four catches for a team-high 84 yards.
Martin led the team in rushing with 90 yards on just nine carries.
On the defensive side of things, defensive Jack Kilpatrick was all over the field, racking up a season-high 11 tackles. Defensive back Peyton Churchwell had an interception late in the game, adding to three forced turnovers on downs. Linebacker Isaac Jimenez tallied one of three Vaquero sacks and linebacker Cole Hernandez led the way with two of SBCC's seven tackles for a loss.
The Vaqueros will now look ahead to Sunday, when they will find out if their season will be extended.
"There's a chance for a bowl game, but it's out of our control," said Moropoulos. "We did what we needed to do. I feel like it's a very successful season and I'm proud of our guys, and we'll see what happens now."
[article courtesy of SBCC Athletics}