MALIBU — With a relatively simple offensive change, an identity was found, drives were sustained and points were put up in droves.
It took four games of experimenting with different formations and players switching positions, but in Saturday's nonleague game at Malibu High, the Bellarmine-Jefferson football team found the answer to their previous anemic offensive woes.
Bell-Jeff coach Rolando Aguirre dropped his double-wing and shotgun sets in favor of a traditional power-I formation package. He moved his versatile game-breaker, Micah Shirley, between wide receiver and running back, put senior Chris Issakanian back at quarterback, Robert Guevara at fullback and used senior running back Mario Marquez to spell Shirley.
What the moves accumulated to was a 39-14 win over Malibu, in what turned out to be the Guards' finest offensive showing of the season.
"I think the big transition here was actually to run the I," Aguirre said. "I'd been stopping some of my receivers with the double-wing and it just wasn't clicking. The I is our offense. We're going to run it. We're going to master it."
While the entire Bell-Jeff (2-2) offense rolled with the new game plan, Shirley stood out above the rest, netting four total touchdowns. He carried the ball just three times, but gained 92 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown burst down the right sideline late in the third quarter.
Shirley recorded five receptions for 60 yards and two touchdowns. Adding to his offensive dominance, Shirley made two interceptions and had a fumble recovery where he ripped the ball out of the hands of the Shark's Nathan Dowler on a reverse run, then returned it 43 yards for a touchdown.
"Micah was in that zone today," Aguirre said. "He wanted this bad. Once we get on top, there's no stopping Micah."
"I hate losing," Shirley said. "Losing two in a row was just hard. We really needed a win before we go into league [play]."
Issakanian said he missed the last game for the Guards, a 15-12 nonleague home loss to Rosamond, for a non-football related reason. Previously, he had appeared for Bell-Jeff in its shotgun spread offense, which struggled.
However, under center in the I-formation, Issakanian found his comfort zone and stride as a passer. Against Malibu (1-3), he finished nine of 12 for 133 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Issakanian started the game a perfect five for five.
"I was really in a rhythm," he said. "We got the new offense in and all my receivers just helped me out. I felt good out there throwing the ball. I feel the most comfortable out of this offense and it shows in today's game. Something clicked with the lineman, the receivers and everything."
Aguirre said of his quarterback: "He's a smart kid. He's a weapon. This kid can do it. He throws it right with Micah — we connect like crazy."
Shirley took note of the value that Issakanian injected to the offense, which was an element otherwise missing in the Guards' first three games.
"I don't know if we could've won without him," Shirley said.
Marquez gave Bell-Jeff consistent balance by running the football, particularly between the tackles. He rushed for 114 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown run, in 19 carries.
"When Micah goes back out, now they're [the defense] looking at him and Mario is able to run the football," Aguirre said.
With 4:09 left in the first half, Bell-Jeff senior wide receiver and cornerback Kevin Yuenyongsakul was injured while trying to recover a Guards' fumble amid a pile of players. The extent of the injury was not immediately known or confirmed by Aguirre, but Yuenyongsakul lay on his back for approximately 40 minutes before an ambulance drove onto the field, lifted him onto a stretcher and took him to a hospital.
"We're just hoping nothing's wrong," Aguirre said. "He could move his fingers. He could move his hands. He could talk. He wasn't really in that much pain. All of it is precautionary."
Yuenyongsakul scored the game's first touchdown in the first quarter on a 29-yard pass from Issakanian. He had three receptions for 56 yards before being injured.
"Everybody was just saying we got to win it for Kevin," Issakanian said. "Today was just a must-win game."
David Bustillos kicked the point after for Bell-Jeff, who went up, 7-0.
Malibu quarterback Brennan Cassone answered with a touchdown for the Sharks on a five-yard keeper on the ensuing drive. Apollo Loomis added the extra point for Malibu, tying the game with 2:52 left in the first quarter.
Marquez' touchdown run came with 9:20 to go before halftime. Bustillos again added the extra point, putting Bell-Jeff up, 14-7.
Shirley put the Guards up, 20-7, later in the second quarter, with his defensive touchdown.
Cassone found receiver Hunter Johnson on a 39-yard touchdown pass with 1:07 remaining in the first half. Loomis tacked on the extra point, making the score, 20-14, which was the closest the Sharks would get.
Malibu running back Saadiq Hassan carried 19 times for a game-high 152 yards.