El Toro has been nearly untouchable this season by keeping opposing defenses off-balance with its hurry-up, no-huddle offense and scoring as many points as possible within 60 minutes. For 12 consecutive games after a loss in their opener, that strategy worked to perfection for the Chargers, who outscored their opponents by more than 400 points, including 159-91 in three playoff games.
But to score consistently you have to have the ball. And on Saturday afternoon, for the first time all season, the Chargers’ high-powered offense was grounded by an equally powerful offense that refused to give up the ball and get off the field.
The Tustin Tillers piled up 334 yards rushing, ran 12 more plays, and nearly doubled El Toro in time of possession to shock the Chargers, 35-28, in the CIF Southern Section's Southwest Division championship game Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 8,091 at Angel Stadium.
For the Tillers (11-3), co-champions of the Empire League, it was their sixth division championship appearance, including last year’s, but their first CIF title since 1948 and the first for 17-year head coach Myron Miller. They scored the eventual winning touchdown with 9:04 left to play on a 10-yard run by Tyler Siudzinki.
With the Chargers trailing 35-21, it took quarterback Conner Manning less than 2 ½-minutes to cut that deficit in half when, on fourth-and-nine from the Tillers 29, he connected with Cody White over the middle for a touchdown.
El Toro got the ball back two minutes later when Andy Castaneda recovered a Tillers fumble at the Tustin 48. But on third-and-10 from the 30, Treshon Broughton intercepted a tipped pass from Manning at the 15 with 2:37 left to play. Tustin then ran out the clock to the dismay of the Chargers’ players, coaches and fans.
“They are a good team, a good defense, and they’re coached real well. My hat’s off to Coach Miller and their coaching staff,” said El Toro’s second-year coach Rob Frith. “They have good players and good athletes. As far as I’m concerned, we lost to the best team in the division tonight.”
For the Chargers (12-2), champions of the Sea View League, it was the second time in two years they ended the season with a loss to Tustin. The Tillers defeated El Toro in last year’s Southwest quarterfinals, 24-17, by rushing for 255 yards and limiting the Chargers to 65 yards passing.
This time, El Toro played much better offensively, netting only nine yards fewer than Tustin (342-333) as Manning threw for 295 yards, completing 24 of 41 passes, eight to leading receiver Blake Murphy for 103 yards.
But the Tillers’ defense held the Chargers and running back Jacob Furnari to 38 yards on 14 carries and intercepted Manning twice. The key play in the game arguably came with 4:43 left in the third quarter when Edward Tandy intercepted a Manning pass and returned it 52 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, 28-21.
“They were big, physical and fast. They just came at you every play,” Chargers middle linebacker Brian Moreen said. “They came and brought their A game. We made mistakes and they just took advantage of it.”
It certainly didn’t look that way to start the game.
El Toro raced to a 14-0 lead after the first five minutes when Manning took the opening kickoff and went 65 yards in six plays with Dominic Collins catching a 20-yard touchdown pass. After a three-and-out by Tustin, the Chargers went 54 yards in eight plays, culminated by a 17-yard scoring pass from Manning to Murphy.
The Chargers took a 21-7 lead on their longest drive of the game, going 78 yards in 11 players with Cody White catching a 20-yard touchdown pass from Manning. But after an exchange of punts, the Tillers’ offensive line began to take control.
Tustin marched 88 yards in 17 plays, chewing up nine minutes of the second quarter, to cut the Chargers’ lead to seven after a five-yard touchdown run by Terrance Martinez and trailed at halftime, 21-14.
“That was huge, huge,” Frith said. “That was our biggest fear — that they would be able to run the ball and win the battle on the ground and eat up the clock so we wouldn’t have an opportunity to score like we have been scoring.”
The Tillers then took the second-half kickoff and went 80 yards on 13 consecutive running plays (using up six minutes of the quarter) to tie the score at 21-21 on a one-yard run by Siudzinki. After Tandy’s interception return and a three-and-out by El Toro, Tustin again ran the ball 13 times for 59 yards and took another six minutes off the clock as Siudzinki scored from the 10 for a 35-21 lead.
Siudzinki finished with 188 yards on 35 carries and Martinez ran 11 times for 86 yards.
El Toro had one last chance to get the ball back with 2:01 remaining and Tustin on its own 23. But the Tillers gambled and converted a fourth-and-two on a three-yard run by Tandy (nine carries, 56 yards). The Tillers were 5-for-5 on fourth down and punted only twice, both times in the first half, to continually deny El Toro the ball.
Tustin led in time of possession, 31:24 to 16:36.
“Even at the very end we wanted to stop them, but things didn’t go our way,” Frith said. “Those [Tustin] guys are much bigger than anyone else. When you have that much human mass going in one direction, it makes it tough.”
While the Chargers came up short this season the future looks bright, especially on offense. Back next season will be Manning and Furnari, both juniors, along with leading receivers White and Murphy, both juniors, and Collins, a sophomore.
“We’ll come back in the off-season and work harder, Furnari said. “Right now, it just sucks to lose. But we’ll come back and try to get here next season.”
1 2 3 4 -- T
El Toro 21 0 0 7 28
Tustin 7 7 14 7 - 20
First Downs 16 20
Rushing Yards 38 334
Passing Yards 8 295
Total Net Yards 333 342
Turnovers 2 1
Penalties-Yards 1-5 2-15
ET – Collins 20 pass from Manning (Howard kick), 10:34
ET – Murphy 17 pass from Manning (Howard kick), 6:53
Tus – Martinez 45 run (Hernandez kick kick), 5:54
ET – White 20 pass from Manning (Howard kick), 2:45
Tus – Martinez 5 run (Hernandez kick), 2:28
Tus – Siudzinki 1 run (Hernandez kick), 6:14
Tus – Tandy 52 interception return (Hernandez kick), 4:43
Tus – Siudzinki 10 run (Hernandez kick), 9:04ET – White 29 pass from Manning (Howard kick), 6:36.
Editor's note: Brandon Petersens' and Daniel Hardt's photos will be posted later tonight. Please check back!