RIPON — Ripon hobbled into its grudge match with highly-regarded Escalon and came out of it even more battered and bruised Friday night.
Not that these Indians are feeling any of it after their head-turning 42-21 victory at Stouffer Field. Slighted by prognosticators and inspired by team leaders, Ripon produced a signature win that is sure to shake up rankings everywhere.
Injured quarterback Nico Ilardi completed 15 of 20 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown in his return from a two-game layoff, and Danny Hernandez (12 rushes, 104 yards, TD; six receptions, 42 yards) punctuated the game-deciding burst of 21-unanswered points with a 37-yard pick-six in the fourth quarter.
“I think for once, maybe people will realize we have a pretty good program here,” Indians coach Chris Musseman said. “We have a super talented group of kids this year.”
Previously-undefeated Escalon is recognized as the top small-school team in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, but the Cougars are now in a three-way tie for first place in the Trans Valley League with Hilmar and Ripon — all with mirroring 7-1 overall records with two weeks left in the regular season. The Indians have beaten Escalon six times in the past eight years and are on pace for their third straight TVL title share.
Ripon avenged last year’s 38-7 loss to its longtime rival, which was the heavy underdog at time with the Indians marching toward a perfect regular season. The role reversal is all the more stunning because Ripon pulled it off with several of its stars already nursing injuries while several others limped away with new aches during the game.
Like Ilardi (knee), running back/linebacker Grant Wiebe (shoulder) hadn’t played since he went down with an injury during the Indians’ 38-27 loss at Hilmar a month ago. On Friday, Wiebe finished with a team-high 15 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown.
“We came into this game a little banged up, not knowing if we were going to have Nico and Grant, but we knew we were the better team,” defensive end/tight end Troy Brogan said. “We knew Escalon was underestimating us for this game.”
Ilardi wore a brace on his right leg and had a noticeable limp, at times, but he still had his way with the Escalon defense. He hit Brogan for a 22-yard touchdown that put Ripon ahead for good at 28-21 with 3:58 left in the third quarter.
“He’s a leader,” Brogan said. “He and I have been best friends for our whole lives and I know what kind of guy he is. He brings the team together, and without him we’re missing a huge piece. We came out wanting to spread the ball around, and Nico was just dropping dimes all day.”
Escalon’s Kaden Christensen (eight rushes, 168 yards) sprinted 82 yards for the first of his two touchdowns on the second play from scrimmage, and the Cougars converted on two fourth-down plays on their next drive to take a 14-0 lead.
Then Ilardi went to work, starting with his perfect 43-yard toss Dorian Dougherty (four receptions, 63 yards) on the first play of Ripon’s second drive that culminated in a 3-yard touchdown run from Hernandez.
“We can’t simulate what they do in practice, we don’t have enough guys, so we told them that we may get down a little bit to start,” Musseman said. “Nico came over to me and I said, ‘Nico, how are you doing?’ He goes, ‘We came back from 14-0 when I was in JV,’ matter-of-factly.
“When we got that first touchdown I knew it was going to be a good night for us.”
Brandon Rainer, who had an arm in a sling by the end of the game, tied it up with a 34-yard run late in the second quarter. The momentum continued to lean Ripon’s way on the next play from scrimmage, as cornerback Mason Knight forced a fumble recovered by Simon DeFreitas on the Escalon 44 and with 1 minute, 15 seconds left in the half.
Ripon wound up on the 1-yard line and called a timeout with 5 seconds left after 14- and 15-yard catches from Rainer (four rushes, 47 yards; three receptions, 33 yards).
That was when Ilardi decided to test out that knee with an impromptu play.
“They knew what we were running and they were calling it out, so I just said I’ll go ahead and take it in,” Ilardi said. He faked a handoff to Hernandez, who was supposed to get ball, and ran it in himself.
The knee held up well by halftime with Ripon ahead, 21-14.
“That adrenaline starts running and you don’t really feel anything,” Ilardi said. “It’s just great to be back out here. I’ve been missing this all month.”
Ilardi again showed mobility on the opening drive of the second half, scrambling to his left and completing a shovel pass to Hernandez for a 9-yard gain and a first down. The drive stalled on the Escalon 37, and Christensen tied the score with a 63-yard jaunt on the ensuing play.
Ripon made all the big plays from there. After Brogan’s go-ahead catch, Dougherty came up with an interception that set up Wiebe’s 18-yard touchdown run. The Indians scored touchdowns off three turnovers.
“Our kids make plays when we had to have them and that’s the trademark with this group,” Musseman said. “To be honest with you, if we didn’t have five of them on the bench against Hilmar I think it’s the same result.”
Escalon 14 0 7 0 — 21
Ripon 7 14 7 14 — 42
E—Kaden Christensen 82 run (Brian Barrietos kick), 11:10.
E—Luke Anderson 1 run (Barrietos kick), 2:40.
R—Danny Hernandez 3 run (Nathan Valdez kick), 1:11.
R—Brandon Rainer 34 run (Valdez kick), 1:30.
R—Nico Ilardi 1 run (Valdez kick), 0:01.
E—Christensen 63 run (Barrietos kick), 7:50.
R—Troy Brogan 22 pass from Ilardi (Valdez kick), 3:58.
R—Grant Wiebe 18 run (Valdez kick), 10:08.
R—Hernandez 37 interception return (Valdez kick), 8:35.