By Dan Gudino
WHITTIER, Calif. – The Whittier College Football team gave a valiant losing effort in the home opener on Saturday, against Arizona Christian University, falling 56-38 at Memorial Stadium in front of almost 1,500 strong.
The Poets matched its highest scoring output since last year’s “Shoes Game” against rival, Occidental College, where Whittier fell by the same score, 56-38.
Whittier Head Coach Mike Neale stayed true to his hard-nose attitude with a run game that rendered 39 carries for 163 yards, while staying balanced with 233 yards through the air, on 40 attempts.
The Purple & Gold found the endzone on their second possession as they went 60 yards in 6-plays highlighted by a Miguel Avina(Indio, Calif.) to Hakim Williams Jr. (Riverside, Calif.) connection down the sideline for 32 yards, which led to the Avina two-yard touchdown run.
On the very next series for the Firestorm, the Poets earned great field position as junior Natnael Yitayew (San Diego, Calif.)would collect his first interception of his career returning it 12-yards to the ACU 40. But Whittier couldn’t capitalize from there giving the ball right back.
The second quarter proved to be a high scoring affair as a combined 38 points would be scored. The Poets trailed 14-7 to start things off but came down on their ensuing series again with Avina connecting with Williams Jr., this time for 41 yards down to the ACU 31 but again the Poets would have to settle with a 22-yard field goal from Eric Voss (Temecula, Calif.).
Later in the frame, freshman Chance Trammell (Chico, Calif.) got into the mix finding open space with a 17-yard touchdown, putting Whittier within striking distance at 28-17 with under two minutes to play.
After a three and out forced by the defensive unit, Whittier had an opportunity to keep it at a two score game going into the half but they had a major mistake. On a third down conversion, Avina tried to dump off a quick pass outside but he was hit as he threw sending the ball right into the arms of Arizona Christian defensive lineman, Jared Landseade, who made his lineman’s dream a reality with a 42-yard pick six making the score 35-17 at halftime.
Whittier was shutout in the third as ACU extended their lead to 32 but WC never backed down making a huge comeback in the final 15:00 outscoring the Firestorm 21-7.
Trammell continued to truck along with another score from four yards out making the score 49-27 at the start of the fourth. Whittier’s defensive unit stood strong on the next series once again this time with Nickolas Perez (Shafter, Calif.) picking up a fumble recovery giving the Poets another opportunity deep in ACU territory.
Whittier would capitalize on this turnover as Avina would find Brian Phelan (Chino Hills, Calif.) from seven yards out, which pulled the Poets within 19. Then with under five minutes to play the Poets would find the endzone one more time, this time with an Alex Tejeda (Chula Vista, Calif.)-Phelan connection from six yards.
Avina finished the game 12-29 for 194 yards and a touchdown.
Trammell finished with three team-highs, 19 carries for 96 yards and 105 All-Purpose yards, as he recorded a catch for nine yards. He leads all Poet runners this season with 174 yards rushing.
Phelan proved to be a trustworthy target on the evening, leading all receivers in receptions with eight for 47 yards, matching Trammell with two TDs of his own.
The Poets defense got some action as well and kept it close early in the game with interceptions from Nicholas Markarian (Chino Hills, Calif.) and Yitayew both their first career interceptions at Whittier. The defensive unit also recorded three tackles for losses, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and two break-ups.
Arizona Christian proved to be a powerhouse program, as they came in ranked No. 12 in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) polls making it the second straight game the Poets have taken on a National Top 20 opponent.
The SCIAC opener will take place at home this Saturday, September 30 at 7:00pm against the Claremont Mudd-Scripps Stags (1-1). The Stags are coming off their home-opener, a loss to Washington and Lee University. Poets move to 0-2.