EYES ON THE PRIZE: Del Oro faces Liberty in today’s NorCal State Bowl game

By: Mike Ray of the Auburn Journal
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If there’s any question on whether the cream has risen to the top for Friday’s CIF State Northern California Division II-AA championship bowl football game between Del Oro and Liberty of Bakersfield, you don’t have to go much further than the respective game logs of the Golden Eagles and Patriots to confirm that both squads are the real deal.

When Del Oro headed 300 miles south Thursday afternoon via charter bus for its 7:30 p.m. Friday night battle at Liberty, the Golden Eagles were looking at a near mirror image of themselves when it comes to scheduling.

“They’ve played a very tough schedule this year like we have,” understated Del Oro coach Casey Taylor about the Patriots, who won the CIF Central Section Division I crown last week and will bring a mark of 10-3 into the game. “They didn’t duck anyone.”

Of Liberty’s three losses this season, two came at the expense of teams that are still playing (Mission Viejo and Ridgeview) and are a combined 27-0. Liberty’s other loss in September was to a Cathedral Catholic team that finished 7-5 and was eliminated by Helix two weeks ago. Helix is playing this weekend in the South Division I AA title game.

“One thing we wanted to do with our preseason schedule was to play some tough teams and find where our weaknesses were,” Liberty coach Bryan Nixon said. “We did that to get better and I see Del Oro takes the same approach.”

Del Oro (8-6) indeed knows all about tough sledding. Four of the Golden Eagles’ six losses came to teams that were 8-2 or better. Three of the teams – Bellarmine, Folsom and De La Salle – were 38-2 and all three are playing this week in bowl games.

On the field, Taylor sees a lot of the Golden Eagles in what Liberty does.

“They play a lot of the same defensive looks that we do,” Taylor said. “They run a spread attack on offense but don’t play at a quick tempo. They do have some very talented players.”

Liberty has three players – quarterback Jordan Love (Utah State), linebacker Krys Barnes (UCLA) and running back Quincy Jountii (Sacramento State) – who have all verbally  committed to Division I schools.

In addition, 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound junior Kurtis Brown already has offers from Colorado and Washington State on the table.

Del Oro will basically be coming into the game injury-free, according to Taylor.

“It’s the 15th week of the season and you’re going to have some bumps and nicks but, for the most part, we’re all ready to go,” the Del Oro coach said.

Del Oro receiver-defensive back standout Trey Udoffia was limited to just three plays in last Friday’s 30-20 win over Rocklin, but Taylor notes he should be back at full speed after being slowed by an ankle.

“Trey should be a go,” Taylor said. “We’re hoping that he can be an impact player for us this week.”

This is the first season the CIF has gone to a full-fledged state playoff format with every section champion getting a postseason bowl nod.

“The kids are pretty excited and so is our community,” Nixon said about Friday’s bowl game. “I’m happy the state expanded the bowl games. We’re playing a quality opponent in Del Oro and it’s a great opportunity for both teams.”

The Del Oro-Liberty winner will play the winner of the Southern California regional between La Habra (13-1) and Camarillo (14-0) next Friday, Dec. 18  at 4 p.m. at Hornet Stadium on the campus of Sacramento State.

Like Del Oro, the Patriots got off to a slow start as they began the season just 1-3. They are now riding an eight-game winning streak and are averaging 40 points a game in those wins.

After receiving a bye in the CIF Central Section Division I playoffs’ first round, Liberty defeated Central of Fresno 40-27, Bullard of Fresno 41-7 and, in the section title game, Clovis 56-21.

Patriots coach Bryan Nixon is in his third season with a record of 29-8. In a quirk of fate, in his prep playing days at Shafter High, Nixon played against Del Oro defensive coordinator Steve Birch, who played at Taft.

Liberty runs a wide-open spread offense that is averaging over 220 rushing yards and over 150 passing yards per game. The Patriots have outscored opponents 471-222.

Liberty is in the CIF Northern California regionals for football because three of the CIF Central Sections champions – Divisions I, III and V – were deemed to compete in the North while winners from Divisions II, IV and VI were tagged for the Southern California regional. Next year the divisions will be flip-flopped.