Friday's Orange Coast League football game between Saddleback and Estancia figured to showcase the rushing talents of two of the league's best running backs.
It certainly did, and the Roadrunners' Luis Soto and Eagles' Robert Murtha didn't disappoint, either, although it was Murtha who stole the spotlight.
The sophomore running back burst his way for a career-high 302 yards on 37 carries, which was more than enough to carry the Eagles to a 35-6 homecoming victory over the Roadrunners at Jim Scott Stadium.
Murtha's total was just 22 yards shy of tying the school's single-game rushing record.
He was on the sideline when he heard the game announcer reveal his tally for a hard night's work.
"I couldn't believe it," Murtha said, a smile dominating his face despite his number being dialed up on the majority of every Estancia play from scrimmage. "If the coaches call on me to carry the ball 40 times, I'll do it. Whatever it takes to help our team win. That's what counts."
And winning is something the Eagles have been doing in recent weeks. Their third straight victory squared their overall record at 4-4. More importantly, it put them at 3-0 in league play and alone in first place. But head coach Mike Bargas said his team's performance was anything but perfect.
"I thought we played a sloppy first half," he said. "We missed some opportunities early, and I give Saddleback credit because they had a good game plan. They took away the inside on us. But I can't say enough about Robert (Murtha). He ran the ball really well."
It was Murtha who scored the game's points.
Saddleback was on the move on the game's first possession. The Roadrunners went from their own 24 to the Estancia 47 where receiver Juan Zuno coughed up the ball, which the Eagles' Matt Carlyle pounced on. On his first carry, Murtha established himself by ripping off a 20-yard gain. He went on to cap a short, four-play, 60-yard drive with a 23-yard touchdown run. Jonathan Diego's kick made it 7-0.
The Eagles defense forced three other turnovers in the half, two of which led to scores.
The first was a fumble recovery by junior defensive end Andy Ugalde at the Saddleback 32 midway through the second quarter. That led to a five-yard touchdown run by Colby Koste, and Diego's kick increased the lead to 14-0. The big play on the short drive was a powerful run by Murtha in which he carried a Saddleback defender the final five yards of a 14-yard run that put the ball at the five. Senior linebacker Austin Abernathy recovered a fumble on Saddleback's next possession at the Estancia 45. The Eagles then needed only five plays to reach the end zone again. Murtha rushed four-straight times including one carry where he carried two defenders en route to a 28-yard gain down to the 14, then Diego hit Jorge Del La Torre with a nine-yard pass for the score. Diego's kick made it 21-0 with 2:08 left in the half.
On Saddleback's ensuing possession, senior defensive back Andrew Tenno stepped in front of Marco Aguirre's first-down pass and returned it 13 yards to the Saddleback 17. The Eagles, however, couldn't take advantage of the turnover as Diego's 30-yard field goal went wide left with 29 seconds left.
Murtha had 161 yards on 20 carries in the opening half. He surpassed 200 yards on a 36-yard run early in the second half on a drive the culminated in another five-yard scoring run by Koste.
Deionete Haywood scored the Eagles' final touchdown on an eight-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Estancia's defense held Soto in check for much of the night. The senior, who last week rolled up 281 yards in a loss to Costa Mesa, rushed for 153 on 31 carries. He didn't go over the 100-yard mark until he rambled 47 yards on the Roadrunners' first play from scrimmage following Koste's score. Soto then capped an 80-yard drive with a three-yard scoring run.
"He's a very good back and I thought out defense did a good job of not giving up too many big plays," Bargas said. "I was happy with how our defense created some turnovers tonight."
Estancia can now turn its attention to Calvary Chapel, the Eagles' opponent next Thursday.
"It's great to be 3-0," Bargas said. "We were down in the gutter but we've picked ourselves up. The kids are starting to believe in the system. The key thing now, with two games to go, is that we control our own destiny."
Estancia 35, Saddleback 6
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Saddleback 0 – 0 – 6 – 0 — 6
Estancia 7 – 14 – 7 – 7 — 35
E – Murtha 23 run (Diego kick), 4:13
E – Koste 5 run (Diego kick), 5:09
E – De La Torre 9 pass from Diego (Diego kick), 2:08
E – Koste 5 run (Diego kick), 4:09
S – Soto 3 run (kick failed), 1:27
E – Haywood 8 run (Diego kick), 10:04
S – Soto, 31-153, 1 TD
E – Murtha, 37-302, 1 TD
S – Aguirre, 8-17-1, 53
E – Diego, 5-8, 58, 1 TD
S – Rodriguez, 4-23
E – Vazquez, 1-28