Poly running backs Gerard Wicks, left, and Manu Luuga with the CIF championship… (Steve Galluzzo / For The…)
It was billed as the ultimate dream matchup, but Saturday night's CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division final at Angel Stadium in Anaheim seemed more like a nightmare for Santa Ana Mater Dei.
The fourth-seeded Monarchs entered the game as the favorites but gave up too many big plays in a 35-17 loss to a Long Beach Poly team that has found its stride after three consecutive nonleague losses early in the season.
The teams last met for the title in 1999 on the same field when they battled to a 21-21 tie and split the Division I title, but this time the Jackrabbits were not about to share.
Light rain started falling early in the third quarter and Poly's defense came up with the play of the game moments later as Matthew Mitai blindsided Monarchs quarterback Chase Forrest, causing him to fumble. Linebacker Jayon Brown scooped up the ball and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown that increased Poly's lead to 28-10.
"The plan was to shut down their running game and make them one-dimensional," said Brown, a senior committed to UCLA. "The D-line did a great job and forced turnovers. At the start of the year we weren't really playing together, but we are now."
Forrest was pressured all game but completed 28 of 53 passes for 308 yards, a touchdown and one interception. He was sacked five times.
"They came with a strong blitz and made a great play," Forrest said of the hit that led to his fumble. "They're a great defense. We did all we could do but they answered back."
The announced attendance was 12,376 and Poly fans started the celebration when John Smith intercepted a pass and returned it 50 yards to set up Manasumoa Luuga's four-yard touchdown run that made it a 25-point margin with 8:11 remaining.
Mater Dei (11-3) controlled the ball for 15 minutes and 36 seconds in the first half, yet it was the Jackrabbits who amassed 240 yards and scored on their first three drives to build a 21-3 lead.
Poly, which won its 19th section title and fifth under Coach Raul Lara, drove 63 yards in six plays on its first possession to take a 7-0 lead on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Tai Tiedemann to Smith.
After stopping Mater Dei on fourth down at their own 21-yard line, the Jackrabbits (11-3) needed only three plays to make it 14-0 when Luuga took a direct snap from the Wildcat formation and ran 71 yards for a touchdown.
"It was the perfect play in that situation," said Luuga, who gained 132 yards in 32 carries. Thomas Tucker had four catches for 67 yards and the Jackrabbits' defense held Mater Dei to negative 14 yards rushing.
"Losing three in a row was a wakeup call for everybody -- players, coaches and all of our fans," Lara said. "It shows the character of this team that we were able to respond the way we did."
The Monarchs, winners of nine section titles, drove 77 yards in 18 plays and settled for a 25-yard field goal by Timothy Strader to pull to within 14-3 early in the second quarter.
Just over one minute later Tucker caught a Tiedemann pass in stride for a 38-yard touchdown that gave Poly a 21-3 lead.
Mater Dei drove 81 yards in eight plays to pull to within 21-10 when Chase Forrest scrambled out of the pocket and found Nikolas Little in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown with 27 seconds left in the half. Thomas Duarte set up the score with a 46-yard reception.
The Monarchs closed to within 35-17 on a two-yard plunge by Pule Moalitele with 1:44 left in the fourth quarter.
Lara informed his players in the postgame huddle that he was told Poly would, as expected, be awarded a berth in the CIF regional playoffs, where the Jackrabbits will most likely play Central Section champion Clovis North (12-1) in the Division I game next weekend. Pairings will be announced Sunday.