Dons come up short in final seconds at Ventura, 28-24

It was a painful start to the Channel League season for the Santa Barbara High football team Friday night.

The Dons thought Ruben Velez scored the winning touchdown in the final seconds after catching a pass from quarterback Brent Peus, getting hit by two Ventura defenders and hitting the pylon in the near left corner of the end zone. But an official ruled Velez didn’t cross the goal line.

Santa Barbara had two more cracks at scoring in the last 18 seconds but Ventura’s goal-line defense stuffed a run by Junior Garcia and a quarterback sneak by Jeremiah Nicholson and held on to beat the Dons 28-24 a Larrabee Stadium.

“I thought I was in,” Velez said of the key play. “I caught (the ball) in my stomach, I felt it, I hit the end, I fell on the pylon… I was in, man.”

Santa Barbara coach JT Stone was baffled by the official’s decision.

“It’s not even a tough call, it’s a touchdown,” he said. “He hit the pylon and he’s through. We’ve had an issue with that referee before. It doesn’t make any sense. My kids played hard and Ventura played hard tonight, but to lose a ballgame like that … I’m not going to beat up the refs, but this was ridiculous.”

On the Dons’ decision to run the ball up the middle on the last couple of plays, Ventura coach Tim Garcia believed they wanted to confuse his defense.

“I think they thought we were really working on defending the pass and they thought they could counter it and run inside,” he said.

The wild ending spoiled a tremendous second-half comeback by the Dons and a huge night passing by Peus, who completed 24 of 28 passes for 351 yards.

Santa Barbara fell behind 14-0 and was fortunate not to be trailing by a larger deficit. Ventura, which got touchdowns from Broc Mortensen and Rico Stubbs, missed two field goals in the first half.

The Dons finally got their offense going late in the first half. Peus led the team on a 70-yard drive. The big play was a 45-yard completion to Mason Bigelow that put the ball at the Ventura 5. After a Ventura penalty, Junior Garcia plowed into the end zone at 0:00 on the scoreboard. Alea Hyatt kicked the PAT, leaving Santa Barbara down 14-7 at halftime.

Santa Barbara came out like a new team in the second half. The tackling that was lacking in the first half was much better. The Dons stopped Ventura on downs on its first possession and immediately went to work on offense. On third and 4 from his 31, Peus fired a ball over the middle and Bigelow hauled it in and outran Cougar defenders for the tying touchdown. Hyatt kicked the PAT.

Ventura responded with a 62-yard drive to regain the lead 21-14. Running back Broc Mortensen ran 21 yards for the score with 2:51 left in the period.

Santa Barbara came right back, with Peus throwing a 41-yard TD strike to Tick Jellison to knot the score at 21-21 going into the fourth quarter.

Once again, the Dons’ defense rose up and forced the Cougars to punt. When Peus got the ball back, he led the team to the Ventura 12, where the drive stalled. Hyatt came on and kicked a 29-yard field to give Santa Barbara its first lead at 24-21 with 6:50 left in the game. It was Hyatt’s third field goal in two games.

Santa Barbara’s Colton Takis made a huge defensive play on Ventura’s next possession, sacking Cougar quarterback Tyler Smith on a third and 9.

Things then went bad for Santa Barbara. A bad snap on a punt led to Ventura blocking the kick and taking over at the Dons’ 39. A personal foul penalty moved the ball to the 19, and three plays later Anthony Marin scored the eventual winning TD on a 4-yard run with 1:02 to play

That was still plenty of time for the Dons to march down the field after recovering a short kickoff at the 45. Peus hit Bigelow and Jellison twice to put Santa Barbara at the Ventura 8. After at 2-yard run by Isai Figueroa, Peus hit Velez in the left flat and he took on two defenders and appeared to cross the goal line before being shoved back.

“If anything, I feel bad for my kids. My heart goes to my kids for playing a great football game, for coming back and battling back after being down at half,” Stone said. “To lose a game like that – and we talked about at halftime how important this game was – it hurts. It’s tough; it’s tough to lose that way when it’s out of our hands. The ref just shot us in the foot.”

Santa Barbara is 4-3 overall and 0-1 in league while Ventura is 3-4 and 1-0.