It was halftime of a physical, demanding football game matching public school powers Mission Viejo and Long Beach Poly. USC coach Clay Helton was on the sideline Friday night admiring the intensity.
Cornerback Olaijah Griffin of Mission Viejo, with red tape on his legs and ankles, was smiling. “I’m going to be sore after this game,” he said.
The second half was almost hand-to-hand combat featuring linemen desperately trying to protect their quarterback and defensive backs trying every trick to contain their talented and fast receiver opponents.
At the end of a heart-pounding 12-7 Mission Viejo victory, it was the Diablos’ defense intercepting four Matt Corral passes that proved decisive.
Griffin returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown with 6:36 left to wipe out a 7-6 deficit. Then Ryan Kennedy clinched the victory with an acrobatic diving interception in the end zone with 1:30 left.
“I just dragged my toes,” Kennedy said.
Corral, a Florida commit, got into trouble trying to force passes against a very good secondary. Linebacker Alex Jemal had two of the interceptions.
“They’re a crazy good team,” Kennedy said of the Jackrabbits (2-1).
Corral passed for 203 yards. Jalen Hall caught six passes for 125 yards and was engaged a classic duel with Griffin, a UCLA commit who’s one of the most athletic cornerbacks in the state.
“It was war,” Griffin said. “It felt like I was in a college football game.”
Both teams were assessed more than 100 yards in penalties. The second half was particularly ragged after Mission Viejo held a 6-0 halftime lead.
Poly recorded five sacks, led by Daylen Fuller, who had two. The Jackrabbits broke through in the third quarter with the help of a 22-yard reception by Camren McDonald on a fake punt. Raymond Graham scored on a three-yard run for a 7-6 lead.
“It was athlete against athlete,” Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson said. “We both stumbled and I’m sure [Poly coach Antonio Pierce] is not happy and I’m not happy other than the win. It was ugly at times because we are playing with good athletes.”
Mission Viejo is 4-0 and has established itself as the fourth-best team in Southern California behind Santa Ana Mater Dei, Bellflower St. John Bosco and Corona Centennial.
But the toughness the Diablos displayed is an indication they shouldn’t be overlooked against anybody.
“The defensive line did its job and the secondary finished,” Kennedy said.
The only score in the first half was a one-yard touchdown run by Shaun Adamson of Mission Viejo with 4:39 left in second quarter. The Diablos missed on a 22-yard field-goal attempt and also had a touchdown nullified because of an illegal-man-downfield penalty on the one-yard line.
Next up for the Diablos is a nonleague TV game against unbeaten Santa Margarita.