CORONA -- His offense mired in a deep funk, Derrick Brown tucked the football in, lowered his shoulder and bulldozed over Corona Santiago's Thierry Nguema at the goal line for Vista Murrieta's first score.
Just like that, after a half of misfires and stutter-stepping, the Broncos' 6-foot-3 quarterback was right again.
Brown's 16-yard scamper in the third quarter rejuvenated Vista Murrieta's offense and the Utah-committed quarterback completed a second-half comeback with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Darion Williams with 16.5 seconds remaining as the top-ranked Broncos survived a 21-17 scare at Santiago on Friday night.
"He started playing in the fourth quarter," Candaele said of Brown, who finished with 199 yards passing and 58 yards rushing after the Broncos were limited to three first downs the entire first half. "He was way out of his game in the first half. He'd been playing tentative.
"But he's our leader on offense, and for our offense to go, he has to make plays, and he has to be a leader out there."
Down 10-7 at the half -- with the Broncos' lone score coming on sophomore Su'a Cravens' 38-yard fumble return for a touchdown -- Brown did just that late in the third quarter when he hit Michael Mazur in the seam for a 74-yard pass that moved Vista Murrieta past the 50 for the first time all game.
He capped that drive with a 16-yard touchdown run for a 14-10 lead with 2:40 left in the quarter, sending a wave of emotion through the Broncos' sideline.
"It was a big momentum changer for our team," Brown said. "We definitely needed that."
But Santiago -- a loser at the hands of Vista Murrieta (2-0) twice last year -- answered early in the fourth quarter with sophomore quarterback Michael Darr's second touchdown pass of the game, this one a 21-yard strike to Dominique Beale for a 17-14 lead.
"We knew in practice all week that they'd want to beat us," Brown said. "We beat them the first time pretty bad, and the second time we knocked them out of the playoffs. We knew they'd want revenge, and it was our job to come out here and kick some butt."
And that meant a heavy dose of Brown.
Vista Murrieta's first chance to erase that deficit for a finale time came and went with 6 minutes left in the game when Candaele kept his kicker on the sideline for a shot at converting a fourth-and-1 at the Sharks' 13. But Santiago stopped Brown two inches short of the marker and pushed the ball back into the Broncos territory before their defense -- which had two interceptions from Jagade Snyder -- finally held.
With the ball again, with 3:02 left in the game at his own 36, Brown benefitted from a pass interference call and a face-mask penalty in pushing the Broncos back inside the Sharks' red zone.
Then with seconds ticking off the clock and three receivers overloaded to his right, Brown took the snap from shotgun and rolled right. Then he stopped in this tracks and lofted a pass into the left flat over the single coverage on Williams, who came up with the catch and raced into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
"Us as offense an offense, we played pretty (poor)," Brown said. "Nothing was going our way. At half time, we had to make a couple of changes. We came out here with a little passion, executed and got the job done."
The second-half comeback made up for a ground game that saw running backs Jovonte Slater and Aaron Pecukonis combine for 27 yards on 19 carries against an aggressive Sharks front. The Broncos -- the top-ranked team in the Inland Division and the No. 6 team in the state, according to calpreps.com -- also committed an uncharacteristic nine penalties for 73 yards.
"The reality is we're only as good as we want to practice," Candaele said. " ... We had a bad week of practice and we didn't get the performance that we wanted on the field.
"I don't know if that was Santiago or us. The way we practiced this week, I bet it was a lot of us."