FB: Elk Grove’s most improbable win

Thundering Herd score twice in the last four minutes of the game to beat Rio Linda 22-14 in CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinal.

A defense that dominated until late in the fourth quarter and the explosive moves of junior running back Marcel Brown was not enough for Rio Linda to beat Elk Grove in Friday’s CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinal in Rio Linda.

The Thundering Herd’s 22-14 triumph advanced head coach Chris Nixon’s team (12-1 overall and No. 18 overall in the state entering the night) into next week’s section championship against Del Oro of Loomis. Del Oro improved to 11-2 overall on Friday with a 52-27 win over Yuba City.

With 4:41 left in the game, the Elk Grove offense only had two first downs trying to navigate against “The Black Death” defense of Rio Linda. But thanks to a 70-yard fumble return touchdown in the first half by Noah Latuligasenoa and a defense of their own that refused to give up points in the second half on two long drives by Rio Linda, the Thundering Herd only trailed 14-7.

In addition to the paltry production, Elk Grove’s situation was more dire when Rio Linda punter Stephan Carter pinned the ball back at the 5-yard line.

A quick 30-yard pass play from senior quarterback Tommy Arnold to Letuligasenoa, however, seemed to ignite the rest of the offense. Arnold completed two other passes on the drive, then junior running back Spencer Sheff took over. He blasted through for a 13-yard run to the Rio Linda 16-yard line, which he immediately followed with a 16-yard touchdown run that brought the score to 14-13 with 2:17 left in the game.

Nixon sensed the Rio Linda defense, which had been so strong all night, might be on its heels a bit and didn’t hesitate in going for a two-point conversion.

“I had it in my mind that if we scored we might go for two,” Nixon said. “And the thing about having a senior like Tommy in there is that he knew I might have it my mind. We were both thinking the same thing.”

Sheff again took the handoff, this time on a quick snap as well, and powered over the right side into the end zone. Just like that, Elk Grove was ahead 15-14.

Rio Linda still had time left to re-take the lead, but on the first play following the touchdown, Arnold (who plays linebacker as well as quarterback) stepped into a passing lane and intercepted a pass. He then switched to fullback and one play after his interception he took a handoff and raced for a 29-yard score.

Rio Linda’s last-gasp drive also ended with an interception, this one by Shaunard Harts on a tipped pass, which then enabled the Thundering Herd to run out the clock.

“The closest thing I can think of to a game like was against Grant earlier this season (Elk Grove won 7-3),” Arnold said. “As a team, we have a lot of great followers and great leaders and we just decided we needed to get going right there.”

Brown looked like a legit Pac-12 recruit for next season in leading the Knights. He ended with 29 carries for 214 yards. He had 110 of those, however, after his first nine carries, including a 45-yard scoring run in the first quarter.

Rio Linda scored again on its next series on a one-yard plunge by fullback Leo Scattebo. The Knights were then driving for a possible third score when Letuligasenoa scooped up a fumble by Scattebo and went for his 70-yard score.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever called a game on offense when we had just two first downs that late,” Nixon said. “I’m just glad we played like we did in the fourth quarter.”

In the second half, Rio Linda had one drive halted at the Elk Grove 21-yard line and had another stopped at the Elk Grove 28.

It was definitely one of those games in which a team that couldn’t get that knockout blow and let the opponent hang around eventually got knocked out and hung itself in the late going.

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