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Turlock claims first place in CCAL after defense shuts down Downey
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Turlock’s Adrian Sandoval made key defensive plays throughout the Bulldogs’ matchup against Downey on Friday (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

Former University of Alabama head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant has long been credited with coining the popular phrase “defense wins championships.” It may still ring true in 2023 as the Turlock Bulldogs cleared a major hurdle in their quest to claim their first league title since 2020.

On Friday night, Turlock’s defense once again rose to the occasion as they forced four turnovers and held the Knights scoreless for nearly three quarters in their come-from-behind 24-11 win at Chuck Hughes Stadium in Modesto. The victory gives the Bulldogs sole possession of first place in the Central California Athletic League with a 3-0 league and 3-5 overall record.

The Knights jumped out to an 11-0 lead early in the second quarter thanks to a touchdown connection between quarterback Carson Lamb and wideout Nathan Dip, a two-point conversion and a field goal. Facing the deficit, Turlock safety Carson Gonzales changed the momentum by  recovering a fumble on a botched handoff between Lamb and Marcus Cruz. Three plays later, the Bulldogs gambled on 4th and 4 by putting the ball in Jeremiah Bertalotto’s hands, who proceeded to speed past defenders for a 14-yard touchdown. 

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Tarell Johnson scores back to back touchdowns for the Bulldogs (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

“I told our guys, ‘If you really want to become a champion, it has to come from here,’” said Turlock head coach James Peterson, pointing to his heart. “You really have to ask yourself how bad you really want it. To come into somebody else’s house and try to take a league championship away from them? They’re going to fight hard to defend it, so you have to give it all that you’ve got. I feel like the message was well received.”

After halftime, the Bulldogs controlled the clock by feeding the ball to running back Tarell Johnson. Midway through the third quarter, he broke the plane of the endzone from seven yards out to put Turlock up 14-11. 

Following a three-and-out by the Knights, Johnson capped off the drive with an 8-yard touchdown rush to push the lead to 21-11. It marked Johnson’s second multi-touchdown game of the season, having previously achieved the feat two weeks ago in a win against Gregori.

“I’m just prepared to run full speed and go hard. Never give up,” Johnson said. 

Lamb attempted to lead his team back from the 10-point hole with his arm, throwing a number of deep balls towards his top receiver, the 6-foot-2 Jack Hinchey. Unfortunately for the Knights, he was being defended by Adrian Sandoval.

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Turlock QB Vincent Gonzales hands the ball off to Dominick Luna during the game against Downey Friday evening (CANDY PADILLA/The Journal).

Hinchey was targeted six times on the night. In four of those instances, Sandoval knocked the ball away for incompletions. Hinchey’s lone reception was a ball tipped by Sandoval that landed right in his hands while he was laying on his back. On Lamb’s sixth attempt to get the ball to the senior, Sandoval cut the route and intercepted him to all but end the game with just over two minutes to play.

Throughout the game, his teammates tried firing up Sandoval, saying that the Knights were disrespecting him by trying to attack him so often. But for Sandoval, it was more an opportunity to create a highlight reel. 

“This is a pass-heavy offense,” Sandoval explained. “We knew it all week in practice and came in expecting them to throw it…I’m happy that I was able to show everyone what I can do. I made some mistakes early on, but I took my coaching and was able to fix it. I wouldn’t be here making those plays if it weren’t for my coaches.”

“They just kept testing him, maybe because they thought he was our weak point, but he rose to the occasion,” Peterson said. “I’m so proud of him.

“We were down and we made a lot of errors and shot ourselves in the foot early on, but these kids adjusted fast,” Peterson continued. “The defense really set the tone for us.”

The Bulldogs now control their own destiny in the CCAL. Next week, they take on a struggling Modesto team (1-7, 0-3) at Joe Debely Stadium. After that, they will face Enochs in Modesto, who also find themselves near the bottom of the standings with a 3-5 overall and 1-2 league record.

“We know what we have to do,” Johnson said. “ We just have to keep hitting the weight room and we’re going to have to keep working hard to win league and make a deep run.”

As for the Knights, they dropped to 6-2 overall and 2-1 in the CCAL. They must win out against Enochs and Gregori and hope that Turlock loses just one of their last two games for a shot to share the league title.