For the first time in six years, the Hancock College football team's season will not end with the regular season finale.
The Bulldogs made sure they will be in a bowl game for the first time since 2011 when Hancock routed East Los Angeles College 58-11 at Righetti High School in the Western State Conference Bowl.
Hancock plays at its campus stadium now, and the Bulldogs (7-2, 4-0) will clinch the Pacific League title outright, and their first outright league championship since 1997, if it beats Citrus there in a league and regular season finale.
The game is Hancock's annual Military Appreciation Day game. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
Citrus is 3-6, 2-2, but the Owls can be dangerous. For starters, "Their quarterback is good. He's athletic," said Hancock defensive end Connor Epley, a Santa Ynez graduate.
Hancock has already clinched its first share of a league championship since 2000, and its first under 17th-year coach Kris Dutra.
Since the Bulldogs played themselves into a bowl and at least a share of the league championship by winning 21-7 at Antelope Valley College (both teams were 3-0 in the Pacific League going into that one) last Saturday night, "It's been business as usual," in practice, said Hancock offensive right guard Lesone Smith.
Ryheem Skinner, Hancock's freshman rushing leader, is used to playing in big post-season games. "I'm just not used to winning them," he said with a rueful smile.
Skinner's Clinton High School (North Carolina) team lost in the divisional championship game in 2015 and the divisional semis in 2016.
If the Bulldogs can keep their momentum going, there is a good chance Skinner's post-season fortunes will improve. They have won four straight.
"When the (Santa Barbara City College) game came up, we knew we could win the conference championship and we went after it," said sophomore linebacker Basiru Jobe, Hancock's season tackles leader.
The Santa Barbara game was Hancock's conference opener and the Bulldogs won in a 31-3 rout. Hancock has kept it rolling since.
Many successful teams have had the good fortune of being at least relatively injury free. Hancock is a good team that has not come close to having that good fortune.
Thanks to being bitten by the injury bug, "We've had to do some shuffling," on the offensive line, said Smith.
Smith said he is one of three original starters on the offensive line who is set to go for the Citrus game.
The others are center Jacob Rothanzl (Righetti High School graduate) and left tackle Jamil Viaud. Lompoc grad R.J. Grice, at right tackle, and Joe Moscato, at left guard, will fill out the starting offensive line Saturday. Moscato graduated from Paso Robles High School.
Injuries hit the Bulldogs hard again in their win at AVC. Their leading receiver, Nick Kimball, went out in the second half. Their sacks leader, defensive end Oso Omokaru, went down on Antelope Valley's last play of the game.
"Osa's OK, Kimball's out," for Saturday, said Dutra.
"Kimball being out will hurt, but we'll get him back (for the bowl game) and we'll be OK." Kimball is a Nipomo High School grad.
After starting their conference campaign with dominating wins against SBCC and Los Angeles Valley College, Hancock ran into much stiffer resistance in league road games at Los Angeles Pierce College and AVC.
Hancock beat Pierce 60-0 at Hancock last year. This time, the Brahmas out-gained the Bulldogs 541-381, but Hancock won 44-34. At Antelope Valley College, the Bulldogs out-gained the Marauders 303-188.
"It's been awhile since I've seen something like that," Dutra said of the dramatically different consecutive games.
Epley helped lead the surge as the Hancock pass rush put consistent heat on Marauders' quarterback Armani Edden, and the Bulldogs shut down a strong AVC passing game after the Marauders scored early in the first quarter for the first score of the game.
"When you're able to put on a good pass rush, it makes the (opposing) quarterback throw the ball earlier than he wants to, and helps your DBs in pass coverage," said Epley.
The Bulldogs lead the state in sacks, but their big pass rush was mostly absent against Pierce, although they got two key sacks late.
"The Pierce receivers were really good, and they were really good in (open) space," said Jobe.
"Pierce was a different kind of team than any team we've played all year," said Dutra. "They had very good, athletic receivers and they made some great catches.
"On one play, the quarterback was being pulled down by his jersey, he just threw the ball up and their guy caught it. But that type of thing will happen." The Brahmas wound up scoring on the drive and pulling within 37-34.
The Hancock defense returned to its stingy self at Antelope Valley the next week. "When you feed off your defense it gives your offense momentum, and we've been feeding off our defense," said Dutra.
Kicker Jordan Pollard, who graduated from Righetti, has been a big asset for the Bulldogs. He kicked three field goals against Pierce.
Hancock's running game is at its accustomed spot - at the top of the league, The Bulldogs average 242 yards rushing a game.
Hancock typically runs a system of rotating backs and, with Skinner, Damon Whitmill Jr. and Nipomo graduate Isaac Bausley, the system has been particularly fruitful this year, The three are the team's three rushing leaders.
"My high school team ran out of the "T" formation, and I was the main back," said Skinner. "I didn't leave the game much."
Still, "I don't mind (rotating in)," said Skinner. "It helps me keep my legs fresh."
Dutra said, "When you have backs with different styles, one might be a straight up-and-down runner, another guy might be more of a cutback runner, it gives a defense a different look, something more to think about.
"Run blocking is very hard to get down in practice, but once you do it gives you a base and it's good to be able to get to that base when things are tough."