There were not many people in the county that gave the Bearcats much of a chance on Friday night when they welcomed the 4-3 Arroyo Grande Eagles to town but with only one snap left in the game Paso Robles was only three yards away from an upset victory. After a two-minute drive put the Bearcats in scoring position and a Will Goldhammer touchdown brought them within one, head coach and play-caller JR Reynolds elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win but came up just inches short, falling 21-20.
“Well in everyone else’s eyes we were the underdogs,” Reynolds said following the game. “We had that drive and we had the momentum so go for it. It was the first game in league and we were trying to get the momentum. I stand by it. I wouldn’t change it.”
It was a furious finish at War Memorial after a slow build as both teams struggled to move the ball with efficiency against the opposing team’s defense. It was especially tough for either team to get any momentum through the air as both teams only combined for 164 yards passing on the evening. It was a game that was won and lost in the trenches, a field position battle and ultimately turnovers and offensive miscues for the Bearcats is what allowed the Eagles to stay in the game and take a late lead with 2:23 to go in the game.
Paso Robles opened the game and instantly seized the momentum by forcing the Eagles to fumble their opening possession with Ethan Wright scooping up the ball. Three plays later senior running back Bennie Johnson shot through the line and raced past everyone in the secondary for a 59-yard touchdown run, and just like that the underdogs were up 7-0. Johnson filled in all night for Gerald Norte who was dressed but hindered by his health. Johnson presented a different threat than Norte and his speed and decisive cuts presented problems for the Eagles all night as he ran for nearly 10 yards a carry, racking up 201 yards on 21 carries.
The Bearcat defense played sound and smart and had the Eagles on the ropes, keeping them from scoring on their first four possessions of the game and the entire fourth quarter. It took a turnover and the swing of momentum to get AG going, which they got early in the second quarter. With Paso Robles’ second drive ending in a three-and-out and their third drive via a strip-sack, the Bearcats elected to open their fourth drive with a trick play that started with an end-around to Seth Maldonado who threw it to Levi Marshall for a 44-yard gain. Paso quarterback Braden Waterman then took the reins back on the next play but was intercepted by the Eagles’ Brett Rash and AG scored two plays later on a Mason Thompson 11-yard rush.
The Bearcats ended their final drive of the half with another fumble lost but the Eagles could not capitalize as their last-second field goal attempt did not get clearance for takeoff and blast right into the back of their center, sending the game to halftime knotted at 7-7.
The game was originally scheduled to be a home contest for the Eagles but due to their new field not being finished yet, the teams agreed to move the game to Paso Robles and War Memorial Stadium last week. Whether it was due to the late schedule change or the Bearcats being seen as underdogs, the turnout from the home side was bleak and even with the addition of the Cal Poly drum line, the side in blue and yellow was oftentimes louder and more spirited than those in crimson.
In the second half, the Bearcats continued to feed Johnson on offense while Frank Mabien played like Patrick Peterson on defense. The senior defensive back registered at least five pass break-ups in the game with four of them coming in the second half and with him shutting down the Eagle passing game the front seven was able to get aggressive as they tried to contain Thompson.
Mabien ended the Eagles first drive of the second half and got the ball back to his offense who thanks to a long run on third down and a late hit out of bounds by AG responded with a long drive. The Bearcats rotated their back on the drive with Johnson, Norte and Dean Conners all registering carriers and Jacob Lambeth got the final one, driving into the endzone from seven yards out, and again Paso Robles had the lead but it did not last long.
As they did after Paso’s first score, the Eagles answered right back and scored in just three plays as Thompson broke through the line and took it 32-yards for the score, tying the game at 14-14. After the back-to-back scoring drives the defenses dug back in and it again became a field position battle that the Eagles won following a Bearcat 20-yard punt from the shadow of their goal line with under three minutes to go. On third and seven, from the 15-yard line, AG quarterback Ethan Royal pulled the ball from the gut of his running back and took it around the corner for the score, giving the Eagles the lead with 2:31 to go in the game. Reynolds and company did not lose hope, Johnson carried the ball down the field for the Bearcats who got themselves into scoring position despite some very questionable calls down the stretch. At one point, on a crucial play with under 20 seconds to go in the game Waterman was called for intentional grounding on a play where he was flushed to the sidelines before throwing out of the back of the endzone over his receivers head.
On the next play, Waterman scrambled again, this time up and through the pocket, and was tackled half in the endzone but was surprisingly called down at the inch line, forcing Reynolds to use his last timeout. Goldhammer punched it in as time expired on the next play but rather than go for OT, Reynolds elected to ride the momentum. But the fullback dive came up no more than an inch short as Paso fell 21-20.
“They played their tails off,” Reynolds said following the game. “We finally started to get a little healthier, we are still missing some guys, obviously Norte was limited tonight and Bennie [Johnson] stepped in and did a great job at running back. Our defense did a heck of a job tonight, they kept us in it when we had a ton of miscues early and there is not much else we could do. They did a great job keeping us in the game. I’m proud of my guys, I love my guys and I wouldn’t trade them for anybody. They played Bearcat football and that is all that I can ask.”
The road does not get any easier for the now 2-5 Bearcats who will be on the road to next week facing 4-3 St. Joseph who is coming off back-to-back big wins. However, the Crimson Cats might get a boost, especially the defense when they see former Bearcat Hunter Barnhart, who earned County Player of the Year his sophomore season with Paso Robles, lining up under center for the Knights.