As championship bouts go, this one rates as a heavyweight showdown.
Folsom vs. Grant, in a high school football rumble of 14-0 powerhouses. The CIF Northern California Division I Regional championship game Friday night at Sacramento State pits two tradition-rich programs of contrasting styles and continued postseason excellence.
Some of the biggest games in area history have featured one or both of these schools. In 2008, Grant pulled Sacramento out of the shadows as a second-tier prep football region when it beat Long Beach Poly 25-20 for the CIF State Open Division championship. The Jackrabbits entered the game ranked No. 2 in the nation.
As the No. 1-ranked team in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, Grant opened the 2010 season with a 49-14 rout of Folsom on ESPN. Thirteen weeks later in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II final at Sac State, Folsom delivered payback with a 41-20 triumph over the Pacers. A week later, the Bulldogs beat national No. 5 Serra of Gardena 48-20 in the state Division II title game.
And here we go again. Grant, the area’s winningest program in the 1990s and 2000s behind coach Mike Alberghini, takes on this decade’s most successful program. Led by co-coaches Kris Richardson and Troy Taylor, Folsom has won three successive section titles and is the only Northern California team not named De La Salle to post three consecutive 14-win seasons.
If there is a favorite, it’s Folsom, based on the Bulldogs’ prolific passing attack and running game behind an offensive line featuring four Division I recruits and a dominating defensive line led by four Division I recruits: Cody Creason, Lukas Hendricks, Sam Whitney and Jonah Williams.
“How often do you see a 14-0 team as an underdog?” Grant defensive coordinator Carl Reed asked. “Last time we were an underdog in a really big game was against Poly, and that turned out pretty well.”
How good is Folsom, ranked third in the state by Cal-Hi and in the top five nationally by several Internet sites?
Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere, whose team lost to Folsom 42-7, wonders if this isn’t the best team in section history. Del Oro coach Casey Taylor wonders the same thing after his team also fell 42-7 to the Bulldogs. And after watching his team take a 63-0 beating from Folsom, Granite Bay coach Ernie Cooper said, “That’s as complete and dominant a team as you’ll find in California. Wow.”
Not that Grant snuck through the back door to get into the NorCal final. The Pacers are huge up front, fast at the skill positions and make plays on defense.
“Grant has the best offensive line it has ever, ever, ever had, not even close, and that makes them great,” Elk Grove defensive coordinator Jeff Carlson said.
Said Max Miller, who coached Cordova to unbeaten seasons in the 1980s and was Folsom’s defensive coordinator in 2010: “That’s the best Grant team I’ve seen, and I’ve seen them all.”
In order for Grant to derail Folsom and its quarterback, Jake Browning (a state-record 82 touchdown passes this season and the national career record holder with 220), the Pacers must jam the Bulldogs’ system. In other words, they need a haymaker that puts Browning on the canvas a time or three.
But how to reach a quarterback who has rarely been sacked under the protection of Whitney, Williams, Creason, Will Koch and Jake Coveau.
“No one has solved that Rubik’s Cube problem,” said Reed, the Grant defensive coach. “Do we attack Jake Browning with blitzes, put pressure on him, knock him down, and risk giving up a lot of running yards because they’re running the ball better than ever? We’ve got to come up with something. I know a lot of teams have guessed on how to deal with Browning, and they’ve guessed wrong. Some drop everyone back in coverage. Grant doesn’t do that. We attack.”
Said Folsom co-coach Taylor: “I’d expect nothing different from Grant. We know they’ll come after us. I know we sure respect and admire how great they’ve been. They’re Grant – big, fast, physical, play hard, play with a lot of emotion and energy. It’ll be fun.”
Folsom players and coaches watched Grant beat St. Mary’s 21-14 for the section D-II title Friday at Sac State, and they came away impressed with the size and skill of 6-foot-6, 320-pound offensive tackle Darrin Paulo, the leadership of quarterback Donovan Brown and the energy of linebackers Chris Atteberry, Carl Granderson and Elijah Orr.
The following night, Grant coaches and players were just as impressed watching Folsom hammer Tracy 55-7 for the section D-I crown.
“They’re a great team, and we’re excited (to play them),” said Atteberry, a third-year starter for Grant. “We have to get to Browning. He’s great at what he does, so we have to change that.”
Said Browning: “It’s going to be fun. Grant is strong, physical, fast, and the defense wants to get pressure on teams.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.