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It was a slow start on both sides of the ball, but once the Central Catholic of Modesto football team got rolling there was no stopping the Raiders as they won a second straight CIF Division IV State Championship Bowl Game in dominating fashion 36-23 over Bakersfield Christian.
Central Catholic (15-1) was playing without star running back Matt Ringer (2,348 yards and 33 TDs but nursing a bruised thigh) but once the Bland brothers got rolling it was almost like putting another set of tires on a tractor-trailer.
Freshman 6-foot running back Montell Bland rushed for 103 yards and two TDs on 16 carries, while his older brother, 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior Reggie Bland carried 17 times for 88 yards and one score.
“Matt couldn’t play so we had to lean on the Blands to do what we do best, power football, and they really came through for us,” said Central Catholic head coach Roger Canepa.
The boys from Northern California fell behind Bakersfield Christian right out of the gate after giving up an 80-yard scoring drive on the game’s first possession, but they tied it up on the first of a number of strange first half plays when Jared Rice scooped up a fumble by Bakersfield Christian running back Matt Smith and took it 22 yards to paydirt to tie the score at 7-7.
Bakersfield Christian (12-3) came right back with another 80-yard drive to take a 14-7 lead, but after a 30-yard field goal by Central Catholic’s Harvard-bound kicker Kenny Smart, a safety on a Bakersfield Christian punt snap that went out of the end zone, and another 28-yard field goal by Smart, the Raiders had a 15-14 halftime lead they never relinquished, despite not scoring an offensive touchdown in the first two quarters and getting outgained 237 total yards to 115.
The second half was all Central Catholic, and in particular the Bland and Bland duo.
After an interception at their own 49-yard line by Jackson Finch for the fourth turnover (including the safety) recorded by Central Catholic, Reggie Bland ran for seven yards, and then Montell Bland gained 11 and eight yards, before breaking six tackles and carrying defenders with him into the end zone from 26 yards out to make it 22-14 Central Catholic.
Bakersfield Christian closed to 22-17 on a 28-yard field goal by Nathan DeJager, but Canepa went to the Blands and the Raiders’ brother combination closed the door on any hopes of an Eagles’ comeback.
When Reggie Bland scored with 11:57 remaining to make it 29-17, it was the 10th straight time one of the Blands carried the ball. They went on to have 17 straight touches combined in the crucial late third and early fourth quarters.
A five-yard run by Montell Bland made it 36-17, and then Bakersfield Christian closed out the scoring on a 71-yard pass from 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior quarterback Brandon Jones to Josh Jackson, but it came with only 34 seconds remaining.
Jones completed 26 of 41 for 380 yards and two touchdowns. He finishes the season with a CIF Central Section record 4,360 yards passing and 54 touchdowns. His 54 TDs tied the section record set earlier this season by Sam Metcalf of Farmersville.
“Their quarterback burned us in the first half so we made the halftime adjustment and went to man coverage,” Reggie Bland said.
After throwing for 235 yards on 18 of 25 passing in the first half, Jones was only 8 for 16 for 145 yards in the second half, with 43 yards coming on a pass that set up the field goal and the 71-yarder that came when the game was already decided.
“We had a chance in the first half to put the hammer down, but our offense gave up nine points,” said a disappointed Bakersfield Christian head coach Jerald Pierucchi. “I thought everything that happened in the second half was self-inflicted. We gave them three straight three-and-outs. It came down to offensive execution and we didn’t execute like we have been.”
Coach Pierucchi may have felt his Eagles self-destructed, but most of the assembled prep writers and analysts felt it was the size and strength of the Central Catholic offensive and defensive lines, and the tenacity of the Bland brothers that wore down Bakersfield Christian.
“It’s about family, and not just about me and my brother, but this whole team is a family,” said Montell as he was flanked by Reggie and older brother Louis Bland Jr., a member of the 2007 team that lost the D3 Bowl Game to Ventura St. Bonaventure but who rushed for 196 yards, five more than the brothers combined for on Friday.
With the victory, Central Catholic becomes only the third team in the modern era to win back-to-back state titles. The St. Bonaventure team that beat Central Catholic in 2007 also won in 2008, while De La Salle has won four straight going into its game Saturday versus St. John Bosco of Bellflower.
“More than anything, I just wanted to go out a winner playing with my little brother,” Reggie Bland remarked.
With Montell and 6-2, 230-pound sophomore quarterback Hunter Petlansky anchoring the returners, look for Central Catholic to be competing for a possible three-peat next season. The Raiders will be eligible for Division IV next season if they win another CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title even though they will be in a much stronger league. If they win another state title next year, however, look for them to get bumped up to Division II for the bowl games in 2015.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend