Fresh off of their fifth win, the Phoenix would not get a breather as they had a visit to Monroe, Louisiana for their next game against the Warhawks.
Chapter Nine: Louisiana Monroe
Perhaps feeling a bit fatigued – ULM would be their third of six consecutive games to close the season – California started off slowly, falling behind 21-7 by halftime. Leading receiver Isaac Williams, out for the regular season with a bicep injury, was clearly missed, as the Phoenix moved the ball fairly effectively but could not find the end zone.
Louisiana Monroe, on the other hand, seemed very much like they lived there – the Warhawks saw Kolton Browning throw for two scores, and running back Jyruss Edwards would find a third off of the zone read.
No strangers to deficit this season, the Phoenix came out of the half revived, with nickel back Jovon Shaffer picking off Browning to set up a short score by Josh Toyofuku and closing the deficit to 21-14.
The Warhawks replied with another touchdown from Browning, his third of the afternoon – this one to Edwards, who beat the defense up the field on a wheel route.
On the next drive, Phoenix freshman Nam Le – who threw for 324 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions on 25 of 35 passing – saw nothing downfield and took off for an 18 yard touchdown run, but it was a 31 yard gain to Ethan Novak on 3rd and 16 that made it possible. California trailed 28-21 after that.
Needing a stop on the next drive to have a chance, back to back passes defensed by Lorenzo Townes and Jovon Shaffer – his second of the afternoon – would do just that, giving California the ball back on their own 20 with 3:21 to go and a chance to tie.
Though California would face two 4th down conversions on that final drive, they would secure each, thanks to the remaining members of the Fabtastic Four – with the game hanging in the balance, both Toyofuku and Novak were able to keep the chains moving. Novak’s was especially crucial, as Le had just taken his fifth sack of the game on the ULM 34, setting up a 4th and 3 that the freshman tight end from Imperial was able to convert.
That would keep the Phoenix alive long enough to get a game tying touchdown from Novak with seven seconds to play, after the former Imperial Tiger got both feet down in the end zone.
Louisiana Monroe was first on offense in overtime, and didn’t have too much trouble scoring – Jyruss Edwards trotted in from 18 yards out on a zone read keeper to make it 35-28.
On their overtime drive, the Phoenix would not get so lucky, eventually finding themselves with fourth and inches from the four yard line.
Coach White signaled in “01 Snare”, which called for Toyofuku to take any open lane after the left guard trapped an unblocked defender. It was a play that they had run all game, as part of his 19 carry, 64 yard effort, but it did not help him gain his 65th yard, as Toyofuku was immediately swallowed in the backfield, the final victim of Gerrand Johnson’s six tackle for loss afternoon. Johnson, a 6’0, 283 pound sophomore, blew right by the trap block and never gave Toyofuku a chance to get free.
The final would remain 35-28, meaning that bowl qualification would wait yet another week for the 5-4 Phoenix.
Toyofuku took all the responsibility after the loss, despite the missed block up front: “That was all my fault. I froze in the heat of the moment and I let my team down. I guarantee that it won’t happen again.”
Chapter Ten: Louisiana Lafayette
They would, however, reach the magic number of six the next week, blowing out Louisiana Lafayette in a 49-17 victory.
Nam Le was simply on fire from the beginning, throwing for two touchdowns and 86 yards in the first quarter, but missed the last three after he was concussed on a scramble. His availability for the next week was not immediately made available.
Still, that would force backup quarterback Marque Martin into the game for his first extended action all season, but the offense didn’t miss a beat, and arguably played even better – Martin completed 13 of 17 passes himself on his way to 168 yards and a touchdown of his own.
With both Le and Williams out, though, the Phoenix were forced to get a little creative, and did, slotting Ethan Novak in the backfield in several short yardage packages. He took advantage of the opportunity, scoring two touchdowns down at the goalline, in addition to his usual work with 99 receiving yards on 10 catches.
His versatility supplemented a 155 yard, 22 carry afternoon from Toyofuku and was essential in turning the game into a laugher. Of his new running back duties, Novak said: “I came to California to win, period.”
“If the team needs me to kick field goals or serve water, I’ll do it,” he said, although he admitted afterwards that he hadn’t played running back for over two years.
Not to be lost in the shuffle was the fact that the Phoenix had qualified for postseason play. Toyofuku called the Louisiana Lafayette game “a very big win for us.”
“No one thought we would be able to be bowl eligible in our first year except for the guys in this locker room and we proved the critics wrong,” he said. “Beyond that, being able to win so convincingly without Nam says a lot about this team. It isn’t just about the “Fabtastic Four” as everyone likes to call us. We have a full roster of players who are ready to contribute and show results.”
“Hopefully he’ll be ready to go next week.”
Novak emphasized how much further the team had to go, reminding reporters that it was only the 10th game of the season: “We still have so much opportunity–not just in the longterm, but in these next couple weeks, as well–to build on this success.”
Chapter Eleven: South Alabama
Le would return for California’s next game against South Alabama, but perhaps still affected by lingering concussion symptoms, did not play well at all – he was pulled in the middle of the second quarter in favor of Marque Martin. At that point, the Phoenix trailed 17-7, largely behind Le’s three turnovers, including a fumbled option pitch on the second play of the game.
However, with Martin behind center, the wind suddenly began to blow the way of the Phoenix, as the junior from Riverdale, New York immediately took possession following a Jovon Shaffer interception and tossed a 32 yard pass to Al Coe. That drive would end with a touchdown to Josh Toyofuku, who ran an angle route and crossed right in front of a hapless linebacker, closing the gap to just three points.
Another Toyofuku run – this one, a career long 41 yarder – coming out of the half gave the Phoenix a 21-17 lead, which they would then stretch to 28-17 when Toyofuku found the end zone from 11 yards out.
South Alabama would tack on a field goal when Marque Martin fumbled at the end of a long keeper run, but they would not get any closer than eight. He redeemed himself with a touchdown pass to Novak on the last play of the game, accounting for the final score in the 35-20 final.
As for the postgame story, there were two – Long Beach native and starting running back Josh Toyofuku finished the game with 28 touches for 212 yards and two touchdowns, with a third score coming by reception, figuratively carrying the team on his back to the win.
“To be honest with you guys, this is the game I’ve been waiting for ever since I graduated from Poly,” Toyofuku said of his performance. “I know I’m capable of running like this every week so I’m glad it finally came. It’s not all my doing though, huge credit to my line and all of the guys in front of me, throwing out those blocks. They made my job easy, all I had to do was hit the hole and run. But in the end, we got the win and that’s what matters most.”
The other storyline was the continued inconsistent level of performance from Le, who sat after a quarter of action.
“No, Nam is our starter,” Coach White insisted afterwards. “I accept full responsibility for letting him play this week – that was a mistake. No question. Marque came in and did a helluva job, and I want to be clear about that, but Nam is our starter. He will remain the starter. He’s going to make mistakes, but there’s no replacing his playmaking ability.”
“I’m just going to stay ready anyway, regardless,” said Martin.
Le: 4 of 8, 46 yards, 2 interceptions, 4 carries, 19 yards, fumble
Martin: 9 of 14, 161 yards, 2 touchdowns
Novak: 5 catches, 95 yards, touchdown
Chapter Twelve: Arkansas State
Though the Phoenix had become bowl eligible two weeks ago against Louisiana Lafayette, something still hung in the balance the final week of the season: the Sun Belt Championship.
With a win, California would do what all teams imagine, but few actually accomplish – start from the bottom, and finish at the top.
That dream was short lived, however, as the Phoenix fell in a 41-34 loss to close the season.
Behind wide receiver J.D. McKissic’s huge afternoon, the Red Wolves had clawed their way to a 31-27 lead with 3:29 to go, setting the stage for yet another final drive comeback – and the Phoenix were on their way there when disaster struck.
Toyofuku received a handoff and was heading for a first down when he was blindsided by a Red Wolves linebacker, causing him to immediately crash to the turf, with the ball heading in the opposite direction. Arkansas State eventually recovered after a brief scrum, but Toyofuku was clearly injured on the play, remaining on the field for several minutes before being helped off to the locker room, clutching his midsection the whole time.
He did not return.
After the game, it was revealed that Toyofuku had torn a rib muscle and would be out until spring ball at the earliest. “That was a tough play, man,” he said, choking back tears. “I put myself in a bad position out there and I paid the consequence.”
“I’ll be alright by next fall but that’s what hurts the most, not being able to get my team the conference title or be able to help out in the bowl game. But I know they’ll be alright out there. This is a good team and just like when Nam went down, someone will step up in my absence.”
Following the fumble, the Phoenix defense would hold long enough to force a field goal, giving the ball back to Le for one last shot, down 34-27, but another turnover – this one, an interception – sealed the deal, as Red Wolves running back David Oku sprinted 29 yards to clinch a victory for Arkansas State. A garbage time touchdown from Le to wide receiver Earl Foster made it look closer than it really was.
“We really would’ve liked to win the conference, but it’s hard to be upset with what we did this year. I’m excited to head to a bowl regardless,” Le said. “Props go to Arkansas State though. They outplayed us today. Did a great job disguising their coverages, especially on the last three drives.”
The team will hold a viewing party later this weekend as they wait to find out their postseason destination, Coach White said.
Le: 20 of 33, 280 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 9 carries, 47 yards, 1 touchdown
Toyofuku: 16 carries, 110 yards
Novak: 5 catches, 88 yards
If you made it this far, the bowl edition is coming later this weekend 🙂