TRACY — East Union was finding ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory Friday at Kimball’s Don Nicholson Stadium.
It wasn’t until outside linebacker Levi Huffman returned an interception 93 yards for a late touchdown that the Lancers were able exhale, as they escaped with a 20-7 win.
“We made the plays when we needed to make the plays,” East Union coach Willie Herrera said. “It’s nice to get the win. I don’t care how, I’ll take it.”
And they nearly gave it away against the win-starved Jaguars (0-2 Valley Oak League, 0-5 overall), who have dropped 13 straight. Kimball hasn’t won a league game since Oct. 23, 2015, when it edged East Union 20-19 in overtime.
“They had that fire in them,” Huffman said. “We didn’t match that intensity until the end of the game.”
Bottled up for much of the contest, Raylan Carter gave East Union (1-1, 4-1) the lead for good after an 81-yard jaunt with 2:49 remaining. He got key blocks from left tackle Jaysen Reindel, wing back Alex Kukor and running back Isaiah Sholund on the play. Carter finished with 106 yards on 10 carries.
“My line did a great a great job of blocking and the wing sealed the edge,” Carter said. “The whole was right there, and I was able to go to the house.”
Kimball earlier tied it up with a 12-play, 93-yard drive. Fullback Noah Mainarick bulled in from a yard out for the Jaguars’ lone touchdown.
Their chances of stealing a win appeared grim shortly after Carter’s breakaway score. On the next play from scrimmage, East Union cornerback Andrew Sena nabbed his fourth interception of the season, leaping in front of Kyle Gibson’s deep pass intended for Cam Sims along the Kimball sideline.
Looking to close it out, the Lancers were faced with third-and-2 from their own 28 with 2:20 remaining. They were flagged for a false start, and quarterback JoJo Espinosa came up short of the first-down marker with his 5-yard run. The ensuing punt by Mason James was shanked, giving Kimball a short field to work with starting from the East Union 30.
“That was the story of the game right there,” Herrera said. “It was how much can we give them to make it as hard on ourselves as possible? I don’t think we have any toes left after tonight. We shot them all off.”
East Union was penalized 12 times. In the third quarter, the Lancers came up empty-handed on their best drive of the game when they were on the Kimball 2-yard down on third-and-goal. An illegal procedure pushed them back 5 yards, and Espinosa had two straight passes fall incomplete.
Kimball countered with its impressive scoring drive.
“Under adversity, we have to keep going and push through,” Huffman said. “We also have to stay disciplined and do our jobs all throughout the game.”
Anxiety turned into elation thanks to Huffman’s big play at the end.
Sims and Xavier Bamberger combined for a 24-yard hook-and-lateral , putting the Jaguars — who had no timeouts left — on the 6 with about a minute left.
Reindel muscled his way past the line of scrimmage to drop Gibson for a 3-yard loss, setting the stage for Huffman’s game-saving pick-six. He also contributed 89 rushing yards on eight attempts.
“I just did my job, just the way I was taught,” Huffman said. “I dropped to the flats, picked my head around, saw the ball coming, put my hands up and it was right there.”
It was mostly a defensive battle. Espinosa (5 of 12, 54 yards) scored the first touchdown of the game early in the second quarter with a 2-yard run. Kimball sacked him five times. Defensive end Chinedu Nwadike caused a fumble, recovered by Kevon Weldon for a turnover, on his first of three sacks on the night.
East Union forced three turnovers, including Trinidad Diaz’s fumble recovery after Ryan Austin stripped the ball free from Kimball running back Rahbert Woodie (12 rushes, 73 yards).
The Lancers had a 331-167 advantage on offensive yardage.
“I think we were a little bit hungover from last week,” Herrera said, referring to EU’s 42-6 loss to Oakdale. “We don’t overlook anybody, but it seemed like we had a hard time trying to find the energy from our sideline.
“We have to clean it up, because we have another big dog (Central Catholic) next week.”