Youth carries California (Pa.) past Gannon
A former Wake Forest outfielder might hold the key to the conference championship hopes for California (Pa.).
James Harris, who last played football as a junior at his high school in Georgia and spent the past three years starting on the baseball diamond for the Demon Deacons, has proven himself as leader of the Vulcans offense since taking over as starting quarterback in California's fifth game of the season.
His efficiency in the first half of a 35-7 home win Saturday over Gannon (4-4, 3-2) provided an early edge to the Vulcans (6-2, 4-1), who later pulled away by balancing their passing attack with the run.
Cal finished with season highs in total yards (493) and rushing yards (252), but Harris' opening half — 11 of 19 attempts for 151 yards and two touchdowns — set the tone. He finished 16 of 26 for 200 yards.
“I'm making progress every game,” said Harris, who has completed 70 of 122 pass attempts for 1,035 yards and eight touchdowns this season. “I kind of came out a little jittery today. But I settled down.
“I'm not where I want to be yet, but I'm getting more comfortable. I'm just trying to get through my reads quicker.”
Cal has put itself in position to win the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West title, and the biggest test will come next week when the Vulcans travel to Slippery Rock (7-1, 4-1).
Gannon, which finished with 259 yards of offense, lost for the second time in as many weeks and finds itself in a crowded middle of the pack in the PSAC West.
“I just don't think we had a sense of urgency today,” Golden Knights coach Brad Rzyczycki said. “That was the biggest breakdown for us. I think we're talented enough to play with them. I just don't think offensively we came out and played at all today.”
The teams remained scoreless through the first quarter, but Harris connected with Ryan McCauley for a 5-yard touchdown six seconds into the second quarter to give the Vulcans a 7-0 lead.
Harris' other touchdown throw, a 31-yarder down the left sideline to Nadir Brown, came with 7 seconds left in the first half.
Gannon's only points came on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Liam Nadler with 10:09 left in the second quarter. The touchdown capped an 82-yard drive.
After that scoring drive, the Golden Knights did not reach California's red zone again until midway through the third quarter, when they were stopped on a fourth-and-2 at the Vulcans' 9.
Another promising Gannon drive ended in disappointment, as defensive back C.J. Townes intercepted Nadler's 23-yard pass in California's end zone and returned it to the Golden Knights' 29.
While Gannon watched its offense ebb and flow, California pieced together one long drive after another with a platoon of running backs.
Junior Jeff Knox, a former Pitt running back, led the Vulcans with 102 yards on 19 carries. He scored California's final two touchdowns.
Freshman Nick Grissom, in contrast to the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Knox's imposing running style, used his speed and agility to gain 81 yards on 11 carries. His 26-yard touchdown run, in which he cut back on most of the Gannon defense and broke for the right pylon, put California ahead, 21-7, with 13:24 left in the third quarter.
Sophomore Derrick Fiore, a Ringgold alum and converted safety, added 56 yards on 13 carries for the Vulcans.
“It's a feel thing,” California coach Mike Kellar said of how he chooses which running back to use. “Sometimes I look out there like, ‘Oh, that was a big hit, so let's go with the next guy.'
“The biggest thing is these kids' egos. They've handled this well. … If you're not a team-first guy, we don't want you. All three of them have been team-first guys.”
Another Ringgold grad, Quad Law, used every one of his shifty moves in an effort to spark Gannon. A wide receiver and return specialist, he finished with seven receptions for 59 yards, one punt return for 11 yards and three kick returns for 44 yards.
“It felt good being in front of all my family and friends who came out to support me,” Law said. “But at the end of the day, we didn't get the win, so it hurt and was a little embarrassing.”