Elk Grove throws out passing

Ryan Smith coaches Vacaville High’s defensive backs, so he might as well take this week off as the Bulldogs prepare to face Elk Grove on Friday in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs. Anyone who has followed the Bulldogs in recent seasons knows the Thundering Herd throw the ball as often as a fat guy sees his shoes.

Elk Grove’s David Hale has thrown 10 or more passes in three games this season and completed more than four just once. The junior went 9-of-12 for 67 yards and a touchdown in a 45-7 loss to San Ramon Valley on Sept. 8. That left the Thundering Herd at 1-3, but Elk Grove recovered with five consecutive wins to become eligible for the playoffs.

Ryan Smith

The section has straightened out its playoff format by using enrollment to determine which teams belong in one of the seven divisions. Teams had to win a minimum of four games to advance to the playoffs except in Division IV, which had 10 teams qualify and filled out the 12-team bracket by adding two teams based on CalPreps rankings.

Dixon and Ceres made it with 3-7 records. The ninth-seeded Rams, who started 0-5 this season, will play Rosemont in Sacramento on Friday. The winner will advance to the quarterfinals and face No. 1 Twelve Bridges in Lincoln on Nov. 10. Twelve Bridges opened in the fall of 2021.

Vacaville is the No. 9 seed in Division II and will travel to Elk Grove. This will be their fourth postseason meeting in six years. There were no playoffs three years ago when the spread of COVID-19 turned the 2020 fall season into five games in the spring of 2021.

The Bulldogs would rather not be reminded that they lost the first three playoff meetings with the Thundering Herd. The 2018 loss was respectable with Elk Grove scoring four touchdowns in the second quarter on its way to a 28-21 victory. A year later, Elk Grove ran for 392 yards and six touchdowns in a 52-29 rout. Elk Grove was 0-of-2 passing.

Elk Grove’s Ethan Archuleta did more damage with his legs than his arm in 2021. Archuleta rushed for 242 yards and three touchdowns as the Thundering Herd gained 559 yards on the ground in a 52-48 victory. Archuleta also completed one pass for 24 yards.

Quarterback Ryan Vaughan kept Vacaville in the game by going 28-of-42 for 336 yards and two touchdowns. The senior also ran for 47 yards and a score. Rare is the game in which the Bulldogs have nearly twice as many passing attempts as rushing (24).

Vacaville has had three consecutive seasons with 200 or more passing attempts. To put that in perspective, the Bulldogs had more than 150 in a season just once from 2010 to 2019. Elk Grove has not had more than 85 attempts in a season since 2016, when Jayden Machado completed 159 of 245 passes for 2,294 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Bulldogs offense has no bite

Please contact local law enforcement if you have seen Vacaville High School’s offense. It was missing Friday night as the Bulldogs edged Rodriguez 16-14 despite scoring their fewest points in a Monticello Empire League game since 2014.

The Mustangs lost by fewer than 30 points for just the third time in 15 meetings with the Bulldogs since 2008. Vacaville had 191 yards of total offense after averaging 410 in its first 14 games against Rodriguez.

Vacaville had 139 rushing yards, failing to reach 200 for the sixth time in as many games in 2023.  The Bulldogs have run for 200 just once in their past 18 games and only six times in their past 34 since 2020.

Vacaville quarterback Brody Fortunati has had better luck handing off the ball than throwing it in the past five games.

Put that in perspective. The Bulldogs rushed for 200 or more yards in 32 of their 46 games from 2016 to ’19. And running against Rodriguez has been as easy as mowing the synthetic turf in Tom Zunino Stadium. 

The Bulldogs have run for 300 or more yards against the Mustangs in 10 of 15 games and reached 400 six times. Friday’s game was the third in a row that Rodriguez held Vacaville to fewer than 200.

It is hard to believe the Mustangs have finally figured out how to stop the Bulldogs. No MEL team has had success containing Vacaville’s offense even when the Bulldogs were as predictable as the sun rising.

Quarterback Brody Fortunati has struggled since passing for 321 yards and four touchdowns in the opener against Davis. The senior has thrown for a total of 303 yards and three touchdowns in the past five games. He completed six of a season-low 13 attempts for 52 yards and a touchdown on Friday night.

Vacaville has invested considerable time to diversify its offense and the past two seasons suggest as much. The Bulldogs threw the ball 227 times in 2022 and 251 in ’21, the only seasons in the past 10 in which when they reached 200. 

From 2013 to ’19, the Bulldogs had at least 300 more rushing attempts than passing in six of seven seasons. The ground game became the team’s trademark when the Bulldogs won Sac-Joaquin Section championships in 2007 (572 rushing attempts to 111 passing) and 2011 (666 rushing to 128 passing).

A run heavy offense has one drawback in that a double-digit deficit will be difficult to overcome because running plays take more time. That explains why a team leading in a game will run to drain the clock.

This season is ticking away for the Bulldogs. They must find and define their offense before time runs out.

Little suspense in MEL football

Welcome to the annual race for second place, otherwise known as football in the Monticello Empire League. Let’s cut to the chase and concede the 2023 championship to Vacaville High without making the Bulldogs play five games.

Vacaville has won six consecutive MEL titles, so the only suspense each season is which team will take second. And even that has not been exciting with Vanden finishing as the runner-up in each of the past five seasons.

Tanner Donaldson contributed to the Bulldogs’ success as a player and now hopes to do as an assistant coach.

Will C. Wood was second in 2017, the first season after Napa and Vintage left the league. Vanden and Fairfield joined the MEL when the Superior California Athletic Conference folded.

Vanden is the only MEL team to come within 20 points of Vacaville in three of the past four years.  The Vikings lost 35-17 to the Bulldogs two years ago, their last loss on their way to the state 3-AA championship.

If Vanden lost twice to Vacaville with Tre Dimes at quarterback, what chance do the Vikings stand  without him? 

Will C. Wood lost 34-31 to Vacaville in 2018, three years after the Wildcats humbled the Bulldogs in a 49-26 victory. The Bulldogs’ last MEL loss was 28-21 to Napa in 2016. Vacaville has won 27 consecutive MEL games since then.

Vacaville’s average margin of victory during that winning streak is 33.6 points. That includes a 40-10 victory against Napa in 2017, a parting gift for the only team that could give Vacaville a run for the money.

The 2023 MEL season kicks off Friday night with Vacaville welcoming Rodriguez to Tom Zunino Stadium, Fairfield traveling to Wood and Vanden visiting Armijo. The closest the Mustangs have come against the Bulldogs was a 49-42 loss in 2008. 

Rodriguez has come within 30 points of Vacaville twice in 14 meetings since then. The Bulldogs’ average margin of victory against the Mustangs is 40 points,  including three games decided by 50 or more .

Armijo is the only unbeaten team at 5-0, but three of the Royals’ victories have come against teams with a combined record of 1-14. Fairfield’s five opponents are a combined 7-16. The Falcons did manage to beat Davis 27-26, but let’s not forget the Blue Devils were routed 43-0 by the Bulldogs in the first week.

Two of Wood’s three victories have come against 0-6 Sacramento and 0-5 Dixon by a total of 14 points. Armijo routed Dixon 42-7 two weeks after the Rams gave the Wildcats all they could handle in a 19-8 loss.

Vacaville can afford to look ahead to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs because no MEL team will pose a threat to the Bulldogs’ reign. The playoffs have not been kind to the Bulldogs, who are 6-9 in the postseason since winning the section Division II title in 2011. They have reached the semifinals once in 10 years since then.

Two section championships in a span of six years (Vacaville won its first in 2006) raised the bar for the Bulldogs. MEL titles are nice, but they lose their luster when they become as certain as death and taxes.

Vanden is the only MEL team to come within 20 points of Vacaville in three of the past four years.  The Vikings lost 35-17 to the Bulldogs two years ago, their last loss on their way to the state 3-AA championship.

Will C. Wood lost 34-31 to Vacaville in 2018, three years after the Wildcats humbled the Bulldogs in a 49-26 victory. The Bulldogs’ last MEL loss was 28-21 to Napa in 2016. Vacaville has won 27 in a row since then.

Passing attack stuck in reverse

Momentum flirted with Vacaville High School’s football team during the second quarter Friday night at Cardinal Newman in Santa Rosa. The Bulldogs did not seem that interested, so the Cardinals took it back on their way to a 27-7 victory.

Vacaville’s defense courted momentum by getting its first three-and-out with Cardinal Newman leading 20-0. Massimo Menicou produced the only highlight for the Bulldogs by blocking a punt. Justin Albrecht recovered the ball in the end zone to pull Vacaville within 13 points.

Brody Fortunati was 4-of-14 for minus-7 yards against Cardinal Newman.

The Bulldogs got another three-and-out, appearing to have finally figured out how to stop the Cardinals. Momentum was no longer enamored with Cardinal Newman and decided to give Vacaville a shot with the Bulldogs starting their ensuing possession at their 27-yard line.

Momentum had to be impressed with Cristian Diosdado’s 15-yard run for Vacaville’s initial first down. That was it for the Bulldogs, however, as they shifted into reverse. A penalty for an ineligible receiver downfield made it first-and-15 at the 37. Diosdado then lost 2 yards. to make it second-and-17.

Cardinal Newman was penalized for enroachment, so Vacaville got 5 free yards for second-and-12 at the 40. A 1-yard gain by Diosdado left the Bulldogs with one play to keep momentum on their side, but they called a play they had tried three times earlier with no success.

The play is designed for Diosdado to go in motion to become the target for quarterback Brody Fortunati. The Bulldogs lost a total of 9 yards the first two times they tried it and gained 2 on the third attempt. At least the fourth try ended in an incompletion with Diosdado being knocked off his feet by Cardinal Newman’s Dominick Torres as the pass arrived.

Diosdado was 4 yards deep in the backfield after going in motion and turning back toward Fortunati. Third-and-11 might as well have been third-and-15.

After Cardinal Newman’s third touchdown, Jemeir Buckner returned the kickoff 39 yards to give the Bulldogs a first down at the Cardinals’ 48-yard line. The Bulldogs tried the pass to Diosdado again on first down, but he was trapped in the backfield for a 7-yard loss.

Fortunati finished 4-for-14 with all of his completions coming in the first half – for a total of minus-7 yards. He also threw an interception.

Play selection did not matter that much for the Bulldogs when they scored 84 points in winning their first two games. When those calls mattered against the Cardinals, the Bulldogs did not answer.

Football forecast for Week 2

Clay Ford is straightforward when he speaks and carries the football. That was evident last Friday when the Will C. Wood High School senior had 22 carries for 92 yards in his first varsity start at running back as the Wildcats pulled out a 19-8 victory over Dixon.

His running style will never be described as flashy. Ford takes a handoff from quarterback Kimani Dokes and runs to the designated hole. If the hole is plugged, Ford lowers his shoulders and plows ahead for whatever he can get.

Colby Ford rushed for 92 yards on 22 carries in Wood’s 19-8 victory over Dixon last Friday.

Ford’s longest run against the Rams was 11 yards. Eight of his carries were for 3 or fewer yards. What matters to offensive coordinator Nick Voight was Ford did not lose a single yard on any carry. Ford also did not have one carry in which he was stopped for no gain.

His remarks after the game were just as straightforward when asked how Wood took control of the game. Dixon scored its only touchdown with 6:08 to go in the first quarter. Wood’s Josiah Chavez returned the ensuing kickoff 92 yards, but two penalties wiped out the touchdown. Wood did not flinch and drove 90 yards in 12 yards to score.

A fake PAT failed, leaving the Wildcats with an 8-6 deficit, but Ford was not concerned. “After that,” he said, “we knew we could handle them.”

Ford will get more opportunities to run tonight when Wood hosts Sacramento. The Dragons, who will join the Monticello Empire League in 2024, blew a 27-0 lead last Friday at Rodriguez in a 43-33 loss. Sacramento has a talented back in Lamar Radcliffe, who has committed to Utah, but he gained just 55 yards on 10 carries against the Mustangs.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Radcliffe ran for 2,109 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore, but he missed last season after tearing two knee ligaments.

Vacaville, Vacaville Christian and Vanden also have home games tonight. Dixon will travel to Winters. Here is a look at each of those contests.

Vacaville vs. Sheldon: The Huskies belong to the Elk Grove Unified School District even though the school has a Sacramento address. That explains why the Huskies had two passing attempts last Friday in a 26-7 victory over Capital Christian.

There must be an ordinance in Elk Grove that prohibits throwing the ball more than five times a game. Elk Grove had a total of five passing attempts in playoff victories over Vacaville in 2019 and 2021. Then again, the Thundering Herd could afford to pass on passing by running for a total of 951 yards and 13 touchdowns in those two games.

Vacaville Christian vs. Delta: The Saints are hardly what they were in the 1970s. Delta dominated the old Superior California Athletic League in those days with three future NFL players: quarterback Tony Eason, safety Bo Eason and offensive lineman Dan McQuaid. Delta routed San Juan 50-0 last week, while Vacaville Christian lost 52-0 at Redding Christian.

Vanden vs. Campolindo: The Cougars, who did not play last week, are rebuilding after losing their quarterback, top four rushers and top receiver to graduation. Campolindo has two solid receivers in seniors Steve Lyon and Tim Daugherty. Lyon caught 46 passes for 457 yards and four touchdowns in 2022. Daughtery added 33 receptions for 567 yards and six scores.

Dixon at Winters: The Rams squandered a scoring opportunity in the second quarter last Friday after reaching Wood’s 15-yard line. A 2-yard run was followed by Dixon being penalized for illegal procedure. Quarterback Easton Valenzuela dropped back to pass on second-and-13 at the 18, was sacked by Kevin Butters and fumbled. Jamir Collins recovered for the Wildcats.

It comes to pass at long last

Vacaville High wide receiver Levi West leaps over a bag that is positioned to simulate a defensive player diving at him along the sideline.

Vacaville High School’s football team has 300 passing yards in a game about as often as it rains in August. A few drops fell Monday, three days after Brody Fortunati threw for 321 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-0 rout of Davis.

The Bulldogs must have thought they were facing Elk Grove in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Fortunati’s 300-yard game was just the third for Vacaville since 2004. The other two came against the Thundering Herd in the playoffs.

Jeremy Villalobos threw for 365 yards and three touchdowns in a 52-29 playoff loss to Elk Grove in 2019. Elk Grove rushed for 559 yards in a 52-48 victory in 2021, when Ryan Vaughn passed for 336 yards and two touchdowns.

Vaughn was a two-year starter and had seven games with 200 or more passing yards, including five in 2021. Vacaville  had three 200-yard games from 2004 to 2018 – A.J. Hefner (2005), Ross Peacock (2008) and Chad  Hekking (2013).

Offensive coordinator Scott Wingert gets sage advice from Fred Jones at practice.

Villalobos was a senior when offensive coordinator Chris Santopadre left Vacaville’s coaching staff and Scott Wingert was promoted from quarterback coach to calling plays. That was the start of an offensive overhaul.

Wingert did not have a problem with the Wing T because only a handful of teams run an offense born in the 1950s. That became an advantage because opponents found it impossible to simulate the Wing T in practice to prepare.

A section championship in 2011 was made possible by sticking with an offense that fit the Bulldogs to a T. They beat Folsom 39-35 in the Division II title game by running the ball 66 times for 349 yards and five touchdowns.

In case anyone is wondering, quarterbacks Nic Ardave and the late Coleman Christensen combined to go 8-of-11 for 90 yards. Curtis Goins completed his only pass for 27 yards on a halfback option to make it 117 passing yards. 

Those 66 running plays epitomized the season for the Bulldogs, who finished with 666 rushing attempts and 128 passing. The disparity was greater in 2006 as Vacaville won the section title by running 714 times and passing 120.

The Bulldogs completed both of their passing attempts in its 37-36 win over Merced in the title game. Ricky Rodarte completed one for a 1-yard loss. Robert Bensing completed one to Dion Bland, who happened to play for Merced.

Fast forward to 2019 when Wingert got his first opportunity to tinker with the offense. COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 fall season, so he had time to to discuss updating the team’s offensive style with head coach Mike Papadopoulos.

Five games in the spring of 2021 allowed Wingert to take the new spread offense for a test drive. The results showed promise with 140 running plays, 98 passing and a 5-0 record. That convinced Papadopoulos to give the go-ahead.

Wingert can draw plays in the synthetic turf all he wants, but the spread offense needs a skilled quarterback to pull the trigger. He was fortunate enough to have Villalobos for a year, Vaughn for two and now Fortunati for his second.

“We’ve got it going right now,” Wingert said Monday. “Our offense has evolved to where it’s at right now.”

The folks in Davis might want to spread the word to Vacaville’s future opponents. The spread offense is not a passing fancy.

The statistics in this story were compiled from MaxPreps.com.