Hancock College's first outright league football championship since 1997, and veteran coach Kris Dutra's 100th career win, did not come easily but the Bulldogs made sure they did come.
Yuri Owsley put persistent Citrus within five points when he returned a Hancock fumble 17 yards for a score at the 4:04 mark of the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs ran the clock to preserve a 29-24 win at Hancock Saturday in their regular season finale on a windy day in which the chill factor dropped sharply as the second half went along.
Hancock (8-2, 5-0) locked up the Pacific League title by winning on its Military Appreciation Day and Senior Day. The Owls finished 3-7, 2-3 after throwing a scare into the Bulldogs.
Even after Saturday's win Dutra wasn't sure the Bulldogs would host a bowl game.
"Right now I'm just freezing," Dutra said with a smile when he was asked about his thoughts of the significance of the outright league title compared to his 100th career win. He had just gotten a celebratory ice bath.
"That's the coldest thing I've ever felt," Hancock's 17th-year coach said.
"Coach Dutra, he's been like a father figure to me. He's a great man," said Hancock sophomore defensive end Osa Omokaro. "I've come a long way in my two years with him."
Omokaro is Hancock's season sacks leader, and he had one Saturday. He was in on 12 tackles, and five of them were for losses.
Wide receiver Andre Hallmon hasn't played regularly for the Bulldogs this year but he's made plays when he's been in there, and he made the play of the game for the Hancock offense Saturday.
Hallmon took Jimmy Kelleher's deep pass on the Citrus 20, shook off a tackle and scored the winning touchdown to complete a 62-yard scoring play. The touchdown put the Bulldogs up 27-17 at the 13:01 mark of the third quarter.
The Bulldogs sacked Citrus quarterback Darreon Lockett in his end zone at the 10:33 mark of the fourth quarter to make it 29-17.
After the Owsley score, Hancock took over on its own 20. Martiez Prather made a diving catch for 11 yards and a first down on Kelleher's third-down pass to keep the drive alive.
On third-and-five from Hancock's 41, Isaac Bausley ran for nine yards on an inside run to seal it.
It figured that the Bulldogs would try to kill the clock with its grinding inside running game, and they were able to do it.
"We knew if we could just move the defensive line a little off the ball our backs would get through the holes," said Hancock freshman R.J. Grice.
"Today, I played strong side tackle and tight end," said Grice. Those aren't the only positions he's played on the offensive line this year. Such has been the injury situation for the unit.
Owsley's score wasn't the only defensive one Saturday. Jalen Burgess intercepted Lockett and ran 31 yards for a score to put Hancock up 14-0 at the 1:38 mark of the second quarter.
Kelleher figured in all three Hancock scores on offense. He evaded a would-be sack and ran in from 11 yards out for the first score of the game. Kelleher hit Bausley with a three-yard touchdown pass to put Hanccok up 20-10 at the 14:11 mark of the fourth quarter
Citrus did what a lot of offenses have done against the Hancock defense in the second half. The Owls, who netted a total of 40 yards on 37 rushes, eventually gave up on the running game.
Lockett responded by burning the Bulldogs for two long touchdown passes, for 36 yards to Jamar Graves at the 3:28 mark of the third quarter and 50 yards to Jacob Bystry at the 13:54 mark of the fourth to pull the Owls within 20-17.
A Jordan Pollard punt hit an Owl's foot, and J.D. Smith recovered for the Bulldogs at the Citrus 32. That set up the Kelleher touchdown pass to Bausley.
Both teams made a lot of mistakes. Consecutive false start penalties and a holding call set up the sack on Lockett for a safety. The Bulldogs went offside five (yes, five) times on defense, and most of those infractions gave the Owls a first down.
Hancock has been penalized a lot this year, but it was even worse than usual for the Bulldogs Saturday. They were hit with 13 accepted penalties for a total of 115 yards.
"It was a sloppy game," Dutra acknowledged. "I expected that coming off the emotional win at Antelope Valley (College,." the night of Nov. 4.
The Bulldogs clinched the tie for the league title, and a bowl berth, with a 21-7 win in a showdown between two teams that came in at 3-0 in the Pacific League.
Hancock out-gained Citrus 236-40 on the ground. Citrus out-gained Hancock 208-123 through the air.
The Bulldogs' Damon Whitmill Jr. carried the ball 19 times and was the leading rusher with 87 yards. Bystry, with a total of 93 yards on just two receptions, was the leading receiver.