Zak Burden made big plays with his arms and legs, and on the game’s final sequence it was he who fittingly punctuated No. 10 Rio Linda’s 49-44 upset of No. 2 Sierra in Friday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division III quarterfinal at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound quarterback doubles as a free safety, and he used his long reach to bat down Devin Nunez’s pass intended for Mark Paule Jr. near the left sideline with no time left.
But it was on offense that Burden truly shined. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 261 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions; rushed 17 times for 121 yards and a score; and was even on the receiving end of a 23-yard halfback option toss for another six-point play.
All season it has been running back Marcel Brown grabbing the headlines for Rio Linda, and understandably so. The 5-11, 210-pound bulldozer and highly-recruited NCAA Division I prospect was as advertised. He turned a third-and-9 screen pass into a 78-yard touchdown on Rio Linda’s opening drive and finished with 186 rushing yards, 89 receiving and two scores. This was one week after rushing for 349 yards and five touchdowns, not to mention a 99-yard kickoff return, in a wild 62-51 win at No. 7 Placer.
On Friday, Burden stole the show.
“We knew he was a player coming in,” Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said. “They have some legitimate threats over there.”
Burden called it “one of the best games” he’s had, as he manufactured varsity career highs in passing and rushing yards.
“Everyone was keying in on Marcel; everywhere he went (the defense) flowed (in Brown’s direction), so I just sort of took the opportunities I had and did the best I could do,” Burden said.
Burden connected with Jeremiah Hampton (7 receptions, 92 yards) from 5 yards out on the deciding touchdown with 11 seconds left, atoning for an earlier mistake that nearly cost Rio Linda (10-2) the game.
The Knights took a 42-38 lead with 6:57 remaining on Burden’s 12-yard strike to Antwaan Brooks. Rio Linda retained momentum on the ensuing onside kick recovered by Brooks and needed just five plays to get inside the Sierra 10. But on second-and-goal from the 8, Sierra safety Marcos Castillo picked off a Burden pass meant for Brooks in the end zone.
“I saw the quarterback’s eyes looking to the corner,” Castillo said. “I knew he wasn’t going to go to the inside because our linebackers had it locked right there. I floated over and came out with the pick.”
Sierra (10-2) used six plays, one of them a 48-yard catch-and-run from Chris Stevens, in a quick-striking possession spanning 1 minute, 27 seconds to jump ahead for the last time. Paule (20 rushes, 80 yards) scored his third TD from 10 yards out to make it 44-42 with 2:24 remaining — plenty of time for Rio Linda to respond.
“We thought we could get it done,” Harbison said. “Good teams find a way of doing it and they got it done. Hats off to what Rio Linda did tonight.”
Rio Linda responded with a nine-play drive highlighted by third-down runs from Burden and Brown, whose 20-yard scamper set the Knights up at the Sierra 5 with 15.2 seconds left. They were well within field goal range, but Burden took matters into his own hands.
It was another resilient effort from Rio Linda, which clawed back from a 25-point first-half deficit to upend Placer in the opening round.
“That’s the story of our season,” Rio Linda coach Justin Reber said. “These guys fight to the end. They don’t stop.”
Sierra’s defense surrendered 636 yards but came up with key plays that kept the team in it. It was the defense that came up with the Timberwolves’ first touchdown of the contest. Rio Linda’s Seth McCoy was looking to gain extra yardage after a catch, but linebacker Scott Teicheira stripped the ball away. Sophomore safety Seuseu Alofaituli grabbed it in the air and returned it 26 yards to paydirt.
In the second quarter, standout linebacker Trevon McCray intercepted a pass and ran it back 44 yards to the Rio Linda 20, but the Sierra offense came away empty handed.
“It was a night of blown opportunities,” Harbison said.
Nunez anchored Sierra’s spread attack, throwing for 182 yards and a TD on 12-of-23 passing. He also had 18 carries go for 127 yards and a score, as the Rio Linda defense limited Paule — who eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark Friday — to only 5 rushing yards in the first half. The Timberwolves totaled 389 yards from scrimmage.
It’s a bitter end to what was an otherwise outstanding season for Sierra, which fielded arguably its most talented team in school history. The Timberwolves captured a share of the Valley Oak League title for just the second time but came up short of their ultimate goal. Third-seeded Oakdale (11-1), which halved the VOL title with Sierra, crushed Vista del Lago 42-14 and hosts Rio Linda in the semifinals.
“We’re going to train even harder in the offseason and we’re going to be hungrier than ever, I can tell you that,” said Castillo, one of three talented sophomores who started on Sierra’s defense this year.