Facing a 4th & 5 at their own 27-yard-line, clinging to a 20-19 lead with a little over 4 minutes left in the game, Lakewood (3-5, 3-1) head coach Justin Utupo made what might be the gutsiest call of the entire football season.
Utupo kept his offense on the field, where Lancers quarterback Brayden Downen gave a pump fake to the left flat before connecting with a wide open Devon Bush for a 73-yard touchdown strike, delivering the decisive blow in a 28-19 victory over Wilson (1-7, 1-4) on Thursday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“That’s a call you’ve just got to live and die by,” said Utupo after the win. “We saw the defensive backs playing aggressively on the screen all night long, so we decided that was our chance to take a shot, we hadn’t done it all game long and it worked out for us.”
Downen finished the game 17/29 for 329 yards passing and two touchdowns. His favorite target early on was Elijah Slaughter, who racked up 179 yards on five catches, primarily off screen passes. Downen also gained 52 yards on the ground with another touchdown, helping Lakewood score the final 21 points of the game. Downen admitted he was a little surprised that the Lancers would take a shot on fourth down backed up inside their own 30.
“I was like, ‘Dang, we’re going for this?,’” Downen recalled. “And then when we came out, it was a fake screen and a fin, and I heard everybody yelling ‘Screen’ on their team, so I just knew it was gonna happen. It’s gonna work.”
Thursday night’s win was not only Lakewood’s first over Wilson since 2014, it was also a crucial win for Lakewood’s playoff chances as they look to secure a third-place finish in the Moore League this season.
Wilson quarterback Xander McLaurin also had a big night–18/24, 272 yards, 2 TD– and got his team off to a terrific start on the Bruins’ first drive. McLaurin hit on a pair of deep passes on that drive, linking up with JT Kraemer for a 30-yard TD to make it 7-0 Bruins.
A 40-yard pass from McLaurin to Josh Scott (10 catches, 128 yards, TD) helped set up Wilson’s next score, a 20-yard scamper from Johnell Gray to put the Bruins on top 13-0 less than a minute into the second quarter. Gray finished with 72 yards on 16 carries to lead the Wilson rushing attack.
Lakewood finally got on the scoreboard on the ensuing drive, going 71 yards on 10 plays, capping it off with a three-yard TD run by Rocky Tautai.
The teams continued to trade scores as McLaurin hit Scott for a nine-yard score on the next Wilson possession, but Lakewood had an answer just seconds before halftime. Facing 4th & 1 at the Wilson four-yard-line–and with the clock running under 10 seconds–Downen bought time and found Tautai in the end zone for his second score of the half, cutting Wison’s lead to 19-14 at intermission.
Aside from Downen’s 73-yard TD pass on 4th down, Lakewood’s defense stole the show in the second half, holding Wilson scoreless over the final two quarters. Wilson’s offense had two long drives to start the second half, but both ended in turnovers as the Lancers made some key plays deep in their own territory.
First, a McLaurin pass went through the hands of his receiver and ended up in the waiting arms of Zion Smith for an interception inside the Lakewood 10.
On that next drive for the Lancers, Downen ran in a touchdown from five yards out, diving for the pylon to give the Lancers their first lead, 20-19, with 3:21 left in the third quarter.
The Bruins offense appeared poised to answer back, driving down to the Lakewood 6 on a 12-play drive. But again they came away without points as Travis Perryman sacked McLaurin and punched the ball free, with Tauti making the recovery to give the ball back to the Lancers offense.
That set the stage for the gutsy fourth down call and game-clinching TD pass from Downen to Bush, who had two catches for 100 yards, plus a 33-yard pass completion on a trick play.
Tautai was one of the key playmakers on that Lakewood defense, and has been an emotional leader for the team on both sides of the ball.
“Coach told us we hadn’t won against Wilson against 2014, and since he went (to Lakewood), we were really trying to show coach like ‘You were a dog, I’m a dog too!’” Tautai said. “I’m gonna show out too. It’s not just your era, our era has some f–ing dogs.”
Utupo said that the faith he had in his defense was what gave him the confidence to roll the dice on 4th & 5 at his own 27.
“I saw the look in our defense’s eyes, and not one of them pouted when they heard me saying we’re gonna go for it,” Utupo said. “Not one of them said ‘Coach, what are we doing?’ They were all on board, and that’s the trust you need to go far in life. You’ve got to be able to trust your brothers and trust your family. And whether it works out or not, at the end of the day we’re going to stay together.”
Wilson head coach Scott Meyer was proud of the effort he saw from his team, but bemoaned a few key mistakes at crucial times that helped swing the game in Lakewood’s favor.
“I told them I love the way they compete, and their effort every week has been there,” Meyer said. “I loved the way we played defense other than those big plays, and our offense moved the ball and we had our best game of the year offensively.”
Lakewood can officially lock up a playoff spot in its game next Friday against Compton. Meanwhile Wilson is on a bye next week before visiting Millikan for its season finale.