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Cougars at the crossroads

After starting the season 5-0, COC looks to continue the trend

Posted: October 5, 2008 7:42 p.m.
Updated: December 7, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Backup quarterback Joey Frias has flourished since taking snaps as the starter. COC looks to keep the momentum going in the second half of the season. Backup quarterback Joey Frias has flourished since taking snaps as the starter. COC looks to keep the momentum going in the second half of the season.
Backup quarterback Joey Frias has flourished since taking snaps as the starter. COC looks to keep the momentum going in the second half of the season.

SANTA MARIA -- It is the midpoint of the regular season for the College of the Canyons football team, and the Cougars arrived there with a swagger-inducing unbeaten record.

The team's fifth win of the year came Saturday as the Cougars -- at least on paper -- summarily dismissed Allan Hancock College 42-21 in the National Division, Northern Conference opener at Righetti High of Santa Maria.

But there were troubling developments offensively for COC, most having to do with a little thing called taking care of the football.

Specifically, the team's potent quarterback duo of Brad McClellan and Joey Frias combined for three uncharacteristic fumbles and two interceptions, all of which threw the airbrakes on the Cougar express Saturday just as it was gathering steam.

Then toss in the uncomfortably high number of passes that slipped through the hands of the receiving corps, and suddenly there's an uneasy feeling in the air.

To put it bluntly, lapses on offense can put too much pressure on the defense, and that's a recipe for disaster when facing the conference powerhouses awaiting COC (5-0, 1-0) in the five contests down the stretch.

Canyons head coach Garett Tujague, who knows the importance of a balanced attack to his team's postseason aspirations, put it into perspective immediately following Saturday's wakeup call.

"Sometimes things aren't going to go your way -- they're not going to click," Tujague said. "I'm a big fan of being able to have something to show our players, mistakes and things we can work on to get better, because we do have to run the gauntlet in the next five games, and it's very important that we clean it up."

McClellan and Frias combined to complete 12 of 29 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns Saturday against the Bulldogs (3-2, 0-1). McClellan was likely hampered by the injury he sustained to his throwing hand in the team's hard-fought victory over Fullerton College Sept. 27.

Frias hurt the index finger of his throwing hand in the first half against Hancock, and he said it made it difficult to throw the ball at times.

"I think it was just a little breakdown for Brad and me, just one of those games for us," Frias said. "But I think we settled in, picked it up, and we did all right. We've just got to keep executing and keep making sure that everybody comes to play and does their part. We just need the whole team to buy into what were doing."

To be sure, there is plenty going right offensively for the Cougars, who entered the Hancock contest as the No. 2 ranked team in the state. COC has the top rushing offense, total offense and scoring offense in Southern California and is now averaging 50.4 points per game.

A significant portion of the team's offensive fortunes rests with wide receiver Hayo Carpenter, who must deal with the pressure -- self-imposed and otherwise -- of being the Cougars' go-to guy as both a wideout and a kick returner.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound sophomore said he was taking his eye off the ball too soon when he let a couple of early ones get away Saturday. Carpenter finished with four catches for 76 yards, including a 35-yard, second-quarter touchdown grab deep in the end zone that required him to climb the ladder while fighting off three defenders. It was a truly remarkable catch.

"I knew I wasn't doing so well, so I had to make a big play for my team," said Carpenter, who leads the Cougars with nine touchdowns. "They gave me the opportunity and I had the chance, so I went for it."

COC went for it against Hancock even before the game started, winning the coin toss and electing to kick off to the Bulldogs, who spent the first quarter with a stiff wind in their faces and a low-hanging sun in their eyes.

It was not the type of start Hancock head coach Kris Dutra had hoped for.

"I was joking with my coaches, saying that on the coin toss we lost 21 points right off the bat because of that wind," said Dutra, now in his eighth season. "We got pinned down there with that wind in our face, and that's pretty tough. I would have hoped we could have gotten them in that situation. I don't know if we would have won the game, but I think the game might have gone a little differently."

The wind certainly affected Hancock's punting game in the first quarter, as kicker Michael Trujillo consistently booted the ball for scant yardage.

In fact, one of Trujillo's early attempts went nearly straight up in the air before falling gently back to Earth for a net 2-yard gain. When the sophomore finally connected with one midway through the second quarter, it drew a mock cheer from the Hancock faithful. Trujillo finally caught a break late in the third quarter when his long-snapper sailed the football over his head, and all he was required to do was fall on it.

Looking ahead, COC's remaining five conference games are against teams with winning records, beginning with Moorpark College (3-1, 0-0), which invades Cougar Stadium Saturday night. COC running back Fred Winborn, the region's leading rusher, sat out the Hancock game with a leg injury but is expected to return against the Raiders.

After that, the Cougars will face Glendale (3-2, 1-0), Ventura (3-2, 0-1) and Pasadena (3-2, 1-0).

The regular-season finale will be a rare day game at arch-nemesis Bakersfield (1-4, 0-1). The Renegades, who went to the state championship game in each of the last the two seasons, are off to their worst start in 22 years.

But don't count them out. They're still, well, Bakersfield.

Last year, the Renegades thwarted COC's bid for the Western State Conference crown before taking away the team's chance to advance to the Southern California regional finals.

Tujague said the key to the Cougars meeting their goals ultimately rests on the defensive side of the football.

"We know what we have to do," the second-year head coach said. "It's so important that our defense is on straight lockdown, because that's going to be the difference. Our offense is going to win us football games, but our defense is going to win us our championship."


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