By Jesse Muñoz/COC Sports Information Director
MISSION VIEJO, Calif. — College of the Canyons opened its 2018 campaign with a 19-6 defensive-minded victory over host Saddleback College at Mission Viejo High School on Saturday night.
Canyons (1-0) limited Saddleback (0-1) to 21 yards on the ground and 130 yards through the air in an impressive season-opening defensive stand. The Gauchos were just 2-of-15 on third down and ran 29 fewer plays than COC. The Cougars also forced three turnovers in the game, with seven tackles for loss and two sacks.
Nevertheless, it was the Gauchos that held an early 3-0 at the end of the opening quarter after Saddleback defensive back Tony Williams intercepted COC quarterback Andrew Brito to set the Gauchos up in Cougar territory. A personal foul call on the ensuing play put the ball on the 21-yard line, but the COC defense held true and forced the Gauchos to kick a 36-yard field goal.
Early in the second quarter Brito connected with sophomore wide receiver Brandon Pierce on a 56-yard toss that had Canyons knocking on the door at the Gaucho two-yard line. Like Saddleback a few drives before, the Cougars had to settle for a 21-yard field goal from freshman Tanner Brown that tied the game at 3-3 with 12:38 to go in the half.
Brown would prove to play an active role throughout the contest.
With just under six minutes remaining in the first half, Brito and the Cougars put together a quick five-play scoring drive. On third and short Brito was able to scramble 11 yards for a new set of downs. Two plays later he found Pierce for another big game, this time a 28-yard scoring strike for COC's first touchdown of the season. Brown's PAT put the game at 10-3 with 2:54 remaining before halftime.
After trading unsuccessful drives, Saddleback moved the ball into COC territory for a 27-yard field goal that pushed the score to 10-6 heading into the locker room.
In COC's first possession of the second half Brito found wide receiver Jarrin Pierce on a 61-yard pitch-and-catch that positioned the Cougars on the Gaucho eight-yard line. The two teams then exchanged a series of penalties that prolonged the drive, including a Saddleback roughing the kicker call on a successful Brown field goal attempt. Canyons elected to take the fresh set of downs instead of the three points, but wasn't able to punch it into the end zone. On fourth down the field goal team on the field, Brown was intercepted to end the drive.
But on the next play Gaucho running back Noah Melbon fumbled and COC freshman linebacker Tariq Speights was there to jump on the ball and bring the offense back on the field. Speights finished the game with seven total tackles, a sack and the fumble recovery.
Five plays later Brown was back on the field to boot a 41-yard field goal through the uprights and make it a 13-6 Cougar lead.
Midway through the third quarter Brown extended the lead again with a 40-yard field goal to give COC a 16-6 lead.
Brown also handled all punting and kickoff duties for the Cougars on Saturday. He totaled five punts for 154 yards, including a long of 43 yards and pinned the Gauchos behind the 20-yard line twice.
Offensively, he finished the game 4-of-4 in field goal attempts and PAT, after capping the Cougar scoring at 19-6 with a 25-yard kick midway through the fourth quarter.
From there the COC defense limited Saddleback's offense to just nine more offensive plays, while the Cougar offense quietly closed out the game on a 10-play, 38-yard drive that ate up 5:34 of clock.
Brito finished the game 21-of-45 with 287 passing yards one touchdown and two interceptions.
Brandon Pierce had a game-high 143 receiving yards on three catches, including the touchdown catch.
Freshman Cayden Dunn was the Cougars' leading rusher with 83 yards on 10 carries. Those totals included a long run of 32 yards.
Linebacker Charles Ike led Canyons with eight total tackles, including two for loss.
Canyons entered the game ranked No. 5 in the California Community College Sports Information Association (CCCSIA) Preseason Poll and No. 7 in the JC Athletic Bureau Preseason Head Coaches Poll. Saddleback was ranked No. 9 and No. 8, respectively.
The Cougars will next face Grossmont College (0-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8. That contest will be played at Grossmont High School in El Cajon.
The Griffins were defeated by Long Beach City College 38-21 in week one. Canyons and Grossmont last met in week five of the 2017 season, with the Cougars able to pull out a 29-28 road victory.
Canyons will then return home to host Santa Barbara City College on Saturday, Sept. 15. A full season schedule is here.
Stay up to date on all this season's action by following the College of the Canyons Athletic department on social media at @COCathletics on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.