Football: Gervais defense delivers 20-14 victory over Jefferson
On a night in which Gervais sophomore Dyontae Navarrete had three touchdowns in the opening 13 minutes of play, all credit to the Cougars' 20-14 victory over the visiting Jefferson Lions on Thursday belongs to the team's defense.
The Gervais defense was the epitome of the "bend but don't break" philosophy, fending off a relentless Jefferson team eager to pick up their first victory of the season by pushing the Lions out of scoring position time and time again on homecoming night. But Gervais (2-5, 1-2 PacWest Conference) was itching for a win of its own, as both the Cougars and Lions (0-7, 0-4) entered the game winless in league play and on the heels of a four-game losing streak.
"We fought the whole game," Gervais head coach Josh Crawford said. "The season didn't turn out the way we wanted it, but we have fought every single week from the beginning until the end."
Gervais appeared to be on the verge of a blowout victory after the opening quarter and change of the game. Navarrete dashed for a 57-yard run at the end of the first quarter and punched it into the end zone four plays later for his third touchdown of the game, giving the Cougars a 20-0 lead with 11:19 left in the first half.
But the Cougars' best offensive weapon became somewhat of a weakness as the game continued, with the Lions swarming Navarrete and daring Gervais to make a play elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Gervais coaching staff had little choice in the matter. The loss of several players from the team mid-season have forced the Cougars to run a modified wildcat offense, putting Navarrete at quarterback to run behind the team's burly offensive line.
"We put the best athlete with the ball," Crawford said. "It's a different look for us for sure. It's not something I'm used to calling, but it's a good feeling to see the kids fight."
"It's not as comfortable as being a running back, but it's something to get used to," said Navarret, who finished the game with 34 carries for 170 yards. "The team needs a quarterback and I just want to help out the team."
As Jefferson adjusted its defense to stop Navarrete from doing any additional damage, it became clear that Gervais' defense needed to finish what Navarrete started, and they came through with flying colors.
The Cougars recovered two forced fumbles in the game and forced Jefferson to turn the ball over on downs on eight of their drives. What's even more impressive is that nearly every stop came within sneezing distance of the Gervais goal line.
The Cougars denied Jefferson's offensive six times in the red zone on Thursday, all of which came after taking the opening 20-point lead.
The first stop came just after Navarrete's final touchdown as the Lions drove down to the seven yard line only to be turned back on third-and-inches as Gervais came up with back-to-back plays for negative yardage.
After a quick three-and-out for the Cougars, Jefferson connected on a 28-yard pass play to set up shop on the five-yard line, only to be denied four straight times by Gervais.
The Lions finally scored on their next drive after forcing a turnover on a fumbled pitch by Gervais, setting up Jefferson one yard from the end zone. Jefferson drove down to the red zone once again at the end of the half, but couldn't punch it in before time expired, giving the Cougars a 20-8 lead at the break.
Jefferson's onslaught continued in the third quarter, as the team recovered an opening onside kick and drove to the 14-yard line. But the Cougars held strong once again, forcing four straight incompletions to take over on offense.
The Lions appeared to finally break the streak on their next drive after connecting on a 24-yard touchdown pass, but the play was called back to the 14-yard line due to a penalty. Gervais took advantage of its second chance by forcing three straight incomplete passes.
The Cougars' sixth stop came from linemen Dakota Lucas and Eduardo Cortes, who recovered a fumbled snap after Jefferson drove down to the three-yard line. It was one of several miscues from the Lions' center that Crawford credits to his defensive line.
"Even though we didn't get to the quarterback a ton, the center was nervous," Crawford said. "And we see Michael Guido, Mario Garcia, and then you put Will Perry who's huge too — so he had a lot of different looks. And then you put quick guys in there, and I think he got frustrated because he didn't know who was coming and how fast they were coming on a lot of the snaps."
Gervais' last stop came midway through the fourth quarter after the Lions drove the ball to the four-yard line. After that, Jefferson finally came through with a 29-yard pass with 2:27 left in the game to cut the deficit to 20-14.
The Lions had one last chance to tie or win the game at the end of regulation, but the Cougar defense held its ground and forced one last turnover on downs to secure the win.
"I'm not going to lie, I got nervous toward the end, but the defense — defense, defense, defense — we stress more defense than offense every single week," Crawford said. "If they can't score, they can't win."
The victory was the first for Gervais against Jefferson since joining the PacWest Conference in 2014, and all but one of the games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
"I don't know when the last time there was a homecoming win for Gervais," Crawford said. "That's another big step. The kids kept saying, 'We're going to get them this year, we're going to get them this year."
The win lifted Gervais into a three-way tie for third place with Colton (3-4, 1-2) and Salem Academy (3-4, 1-2) in the PacWest with two games left in the season. With a road game at Colton next week, followed by the regular season finale against Blanchet (6-1, 3-1) the Cougars are in position to make a late-season playoff push.
"We've got a lot of fight, so I'm looking forward to next week already," Crawford said.