On the penultimate play of the third quarter, after watching his defensive back Mason Pena deliver a thundering hit, Christopher High coach Tim Pierleoni said, “The defense is playing like their hair is on fire.” And that pretty much summed up the Cougars’ 17-7 win over visiting Live Oak on Thursday.
“They’re definitely playing like their hair is on fire and I love it,” Pierleoni said. “That’s what I’ve asked them to do.”
It was an impressive performance from the Christopher (2-0) defense, especially when you take into account Live Oak (2-1) entered the contest having scored 69 points in two games. However, the Acorns were limited to a paltry 101 yards of total offense, one of their lowest totals in the last several years.
The Cougars defensive line of Elliot Carbajal, Miguel Rangel, Braden Clark, Payton Wheeler and Osvaldo Jimenez wreaked havoc throughout, as Live Oak quarterbacks Caleb Ojeda and Trent Cousens either had to throw the ball earlier than they wanted or were forced to scramble as they were under constant duress.
Safety Adam Andrade had two interceptions and linebacker Rossi Oteri had several punishing tackles, was flying to the ball and had the defense in sync.
“Rossi is probably the smartest football player I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached a lot of players in my 36 years of doing this thing,” Pierleoni said. “He’s amazing. I ask a lot of him as my QB on defense and he comes through every time.”
The Cougars took control from the outset, jumping out to a 17-0 lead before the Acorns scored their only TD of the game with 7 minutes, 46 seconds remaining. CHS receiver Cole Sabala had a breakout performance, catching TD passes of 12 and 26 yards from James Goodrich. The two were in rhythm all night, as Goodrich hit Sabala with beautiful fade passes down the left sideline on both occasions. Jermaine Thomas’ 37-yard field goal accounted for the rest of the CHS scoring.
Live Oak’s lone score came when Jordan Fuentes went around right end for 8-yards. The TD was set up on the prior play when Cousens connected with Mosiah Saulala for a 34 yard gain. That was the team’s second longest play from scrimmage to Cousens’ 38-yard scramble with 5 minutes left in the game. However, it was too little, too late for Live Oak, which couldn’t sustain anything offensively.
“They gave us a lot of stuff to work on with their sets, blitzes and everything and we just weren’t ready tonight,” Acorns coach Mike Gemo said. “We didn’t block well up front, and we put things on the (offensive) line at halftime. We just didn’t do our jobs and we weren’t prepared properly. That goes on me and the coaching staff, and we’ll fix that for next week.”
Despite allowing two well executed plays through the air from Christopher, Live Oak’s defense played well, limiting the Cougars to 204 yards of total offense. Saulaua had a couple of tackles for losses, Jacob Enderle recovered a fumble and Xavier Catano had an interception. A week after getting off to a slow start in a blowout win over Overfelt, the Acorns talked about focus and playing with a sense of urgency afterward.
“The kids don’t want this feeling again in the next two weeks so we’re going to try to go out with two wins (against Leland and Lincoln) to finish off the season and go out on a happy note,” Gemo said.
Thursday’s game was a perfect opportunity for both teams as CHS had no opponent scheduled and Live Oak needed to fill a game because Piedmont Hills had to cancel last weekend. Despite the loss, Gemo said it’s always a plus when Live Oak and CHS play. He and Pierleoni have mutual respect for one another and their teams have had some thrilling games over the years.
“This is what playing Christopher is, it’s a good rivalry game for us,” Gemo said. “They win some, we win some. They got us this year, and I thank him (Pierleoni) for taking this game on short notice. We didn’t talk until Sunday night, and at least our kids got a game in, but all congratulations to him.”
Two weeks ago in the Cougars’ season-opener, tailback Logan Stelling was a tour de force, rushing for a career-high 270 yards on 12 carries with four long TD runs against Branham. Against a much tougher Live Oak defense, Stelling had 21 carries for 87 yards, consistently running for tough yards amid a flurry of defenders. Goodrich was superb, completing 9-of-12 passes for 111 yards. Of course, it was the defense’s performance that had Pierleoni marveling afterward.
The CHS defense has talented playmakers all over the field, but it is also doing a lot of stunts, blitzes and mixing up its coverages from a variety of formations to keep offenses off-balance.
“We’re doing a lot of things and moving around a lot (pre-snap),” Pierleoni said. “The guys are getting below pad level and just getting after it. I’m super proud of the kids. You see them working so hard during practice and in Zoom meetings and now it’s all coming to fruition in the games.”
In addition to the players already mentioned, Pierleoni noted cornerback Nick Pham making plays and linebacker Kingsley Okoronkwo being active all over the field. Everything starts with Oteri, whose knowledge of the game allows him to call a play and get the defense situated in the right formation.
“There is a lot of stuff we’re doing out there that he’s controlling,” Pierleoni said. “He’s an impressive kid. It feels good to see the kids having this much fun. It’s been a while for us where we’ve been able to put back-to-back games like this together.”