With the tournament win, are UC Santa Cruz the best in the Southwest?
March 10, 2023 by Jake Thorne in Recap with 0 comments
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The West Coast powerhouses showed their grit at a stormy Stanford Invite. The conditions were muddy, windy, and rainy which tested teams mentally and physically. It caused havoc for offenses and gave us the opportunity to see whose defenses could step up and execute through the wind.
Santa Cruz Slays Cal Poly
For the first time in four years, Cal Poly fall to a southwest rival, and it’s Santa Cruz who issue the finishing blow. In a blustery final that ended 7-6, the Slugs proved to be the better side. Their staunch end zone defense and downpour of sideline energy were too much for SLO to overcome. This win – in addition to UCLA’s strong performance at Smoky Mountain Invite – raises the question of whether Cal Poly SLO will retain the title as Southwest king this year.
The game started out with two breaks in favor of Santa Cruz, the first of which came on an upwind, multi-turn point that was finished by Dylan Burns catching a deflected pass from Keaton Orser in the end zone. The second came on a contested in-out call that resulted in Liam Jay and Xaul Starr working end zone dominator for the downwind break. Cal Poly SLO came out flat and got punished by a Santa Cruz side that came out hungry, sensing an opportunity to take down an interregional rival.
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After a few scores, one of which took 17 minutes at 2-3, Cal Poly managed to take control by getting the breaks back to get back on serve. The most critical point of the game came at 5-5 with SLO playing offense downwind. SLO worked it down several times but could not get past the impenetrable Slugs defense. They play an aggressive switch style in the end zone that forces the offense to counter rather than run their typical dump sets. UCSC then worked it up to secure the point. Selim Jones, Toby Warren and Kien Warren were crucial pieces for the Slugs defense. They all made intelligent switches and got blocks on big matchups.
Each point was a grind, as both teams’ offenses could not score against the pressure of defense and the wind. The slog of each point depleted the clock much faster than a game with better conditions. The game was almost over at halftime (taken early at 6-5 because of halftime cap). Cal Poly had a chance to break upwind out of half but could not convert. They followed it up with a hold but it took too long, resulting in the Santa Cruz Banana Slugs taking the Stanford Invite title.
This season is shaping up to be very special for Santa Cruz if they can maintain their trajectory. They have wins over Wisconsin, Oregon, Cal Poly, UCLA, and Washington, and a universe point loss to Colorado. This Santa Cruz team have shown they are a threat to any team. Their defense is athletic and physically imposing, but also well coached and technical, with honed zone and junk sets. They were effective and oppressive, especially when the O-Line brought them out on the turn against opposing D-Line offenses. With strong zone and matchup defensive capabilities, this Santa Cruz defense is versatile enough to cycle through their looks to eventually find something that gives you trouble.
Cal Poly had all the chances they needed to win the game as Santa Cruz were by no means perfect on offense. But it was the SLO defense that failed to convert breaks when they needed to down the stretch. Kyle Lew and Calvin Brown are incredible talents, but have not shown they can be efficient enough in the big games to win them consistently. Their offense continues to make progress, and it was nice to see Keaton Orser back in the field. He had a good showing returning from injury and provided a nice boost to the offensive handler corps. It still seems that this O-Line has to work very hard for their points in comparison to other teams who flow down the field with less friction.
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