MURRIETA — Murrieta Valley High's football team gave its neighborhood bully all it could handle Friday night, while Vista Murrieta didn't handle its business all that well.
All of this added up to a rather awkward game that didn't live up to what was probably the most meaningful meeting ever between the intradistrict rivals.
Broncos junior quarterback Nick Stevens ran for 88 yards and touchdown while throwing for 167 yards and a score as host Vista Murrieta clinched at least a share of the Southwestern League title by holding off Murrieta Valley, 23-14, to retain the Unity Cup.
Vista Murrieta, ranked No. 2 in the county and No. 5 in the state by calhisports.com, led 20-7 at halftime and held off the Nighthawks when they closed to within six points in the third quarter. Senior kicker Tyler Rausa booted a 34-yard field goal with 2:29 left in the third to establish a two-possession margin that the Nighthawks, ranked fifth in the county, couldn't make up.
While giving Murrieta Valley credit for a gritty performance, Vista Murrieta coach Coley Candaele also thought his team underachieved — a carryover, he said, from what he described as a bad week of practice.
"It wasn't real surprising to me that we didn't finish drives and that we didn't stop (Murrieta Valley)," Candaele said, "because that's what we did at practice this week, and what you do at practice is what you do on Friday nights."
Vista Murrieta fumbled four times (losing one) and was penalized 12 times for 106 yards. The Broncos converted just five of 13 third downs.
After a several-year stretch in which Vista Murrieta vs. Chaparral had been the most important Southwestern League game of the year, this season it was the Broncos (4-5, 4-0 league) — whose five losses were all the result of forfeits — and the Nighthawks (7-2, 3-1) who essentially played for a league title.
"We were fighting for this game out there tonight," said Stevens, who completed 12 of 18 passes. "It wasn't like we rolled over. But we didn't play like it was a big game."
Murrieta Valley sure did, even while playing without starting defensive linemen Jordan Silva and Michael Payne, as a result of an automatic suspension for ejections from last week's victory over Murrieta Mesa.
Despite facing constant pressure, junior quarterback Andrew Blake led the Nighthawks on two scoring drives, the second capped by his 9-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Brandon Iacobellis that allowed the Nighthawks to close within 20-14 with 6:24 left in the third quarter.
Vista Murrieta answered with Rausa's field goal, and Murrieta Valley had a chance to get closer at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Nighthawks reached the Broncos' 9-yard line before a fourth-and-1 blitz caught Blake for a 7-yard sack and ended the threat. Murrieta coach Greg Ireland chose to go for it instead of kicking a field goal to cut the deficit to one possession.
"If you can't get a 4th-and-1, you don't deserve to win a championship," Ireland said. "You've got to get that. Championship teams get those."
Blake spent much of the game on the run, doing well to complete 14 of 31 passes for 161 yards. He was sacked five times.
"Hits on a quarterback over four quarters are kind of our philosophy," Candaele said. "It's about how many times can you can get to him during the course of a game."