With section championships wrapped up all around the state, the CIF State football playoffs are finally here. 28 bowl games are being played throughout California this weekend, and SBLive is previewing every single one.
This 2-AA state matchup is between two squads that came out of Division 2 in their own sections, Central Catholic (Sac-Joaquin Section) and Bullard (Central Section). The victory has a date with the winner of San Diego powerhouses Helix and Mater Dei Catholic for a state championship.
Central Catholic (12-1) vs. Bullard (9-4) – Friday, Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m.
The Knights challenged themselves with a brutal non-league slate that included just about the whole TRAC, and boy did it pay for them. They started off the season losing to the incumbent Central Section juggernauts, Central and Buchanan, defeated Turlock narrowly, lost by one score to Clovis West, and then really announced their arrival in their last non-league game. That one was an upset win over Clovis, a win that turned a lot of heads on its own, and was particularly shocking in that it came by a score of 35-12. Bullard would fall narrowly in league play against San Joaquin Memorial, which finished the regular season as the second-ranked team in the whole section. But after that, the Knights resumed their roll, and have never stopped. They beat everyone else in league play and survived a one-point scare against St. Joseph (Santa Maria) in their playoff-opener to then put up 70 points in a revenge win against Clovis West, 49 points against Kingsburg, and 45 points against Bakersfield to cruise to a title. Many had Bullard ranked well inside the top eight in the Central Section entering the postseason, but the Knights fell to the top seed in Division 2 despite playing A-level football leading up to that, and they’ve very much made the most of it.
That said, Bullard is actually considered a small but clear underdog heading about 100 miles north to Modesto. Central Catholic stormed to such a blistering 12-1 season following a couple (relative) down years that many of the teams it beat early on went nearly the whole rest of the regular season going vastly underrated. The Raiders started off by outdueling eventual CIFSJS D4 finalist Merced 31-28, shocked St. Mary’s (Stockton) by two touchdowns, and pulled another upset against San Ramon Valley before picking up one close loss against Bellarmine College Prep, which went on to have a massive resurgence this season as well. After that, they ran away with a league title in the extremely competitive and underrated Valley Oak League, survived a scare against Lodi in their playoff-opener, and rolled to wins over Antelope and Monterey Trail to win the section.
Central Catholic is led offensively by one of the best RB tandems in NorCal, Aiden “Ponyboy” Taylor (1,655 yards and 32 touchdowns rushing, 205 receiving yards) and Julian Lopez (1,161 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing). While it’s no secret that the Raiders are focused on running the football, they do have a legitimate passing game, as QB Tyler Wentworth has thrown for 1,447 yards and 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and Nolan Croasdale is a strong option at receiver. Their defense has been even more impressive than their offense most of the time though, for instance holding outstanding offenses in Oakdale, San Ramon Valley, and Kimball to two scores, and completely shutting out Antelope’s dominant rushing game. Taylor leads the Raiders with 54 tackles and two forced fumbles, and LB Jericho Machado also has 54 tackles to go with a team-high 6.5 sacks. TE/LB Ayden Halvorson is a two-way standout, and 3-star SS Jaelen Nichols and DB Brooklyn Cheek are stars in the secondary.
The Knights’ explosive offense and aerial attack has taken center stage for most of their season. QB Roland Russo has thrown for 3,183 yards and 33 touchdowns on over 75% completion, with WRs Jalyn Utendahl (1,045 yards, five touchdowns), Jayden Davis (759 yards, 12 touchdowns), and Daizon Allen (574 yards, nine touchdowns) doing most of the receiving. Herman Zamora is Bullard’s top threat at RB when they do run the ball, and he’s also a capable pass-catcher. Special teams offense is a major strength for the Knights, who have 676 KR yards and 160 PR yards on the season, with Davis leading the way. Davis is a 3-star Fresno State commit on offense, but has arguably been even better on defense this season, and he leads the Knights with six interceptions and three forced fumbles to go with 68 tackles and 4.5 TFLs. Eddie Torres is also at six picks in the defensive backfield, and he leads the team in pass break-ups. Bullard also has speed up front on defense, with undersized but hard-hitting LBs Koda Lamanuzzi (72 tackles, 13 TFLs, seven sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles) and Brian Garcia (94 tackles, five tackles for loss) leading the front seven.
Bullard will look to turn this into a shootout, whereas Central Catholic is likely to fight for a less-explosive tempo to keep its opponent’s passing game uncomfortable and its foe’s defense on the field. It’s hard to argue that the Knights aren’t an underdog in this one, but if they can build an early lead to pull the rug out from under Central Catholic, a win is definitely attainable.