This offseason, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, California) needed to figure out who would take on the No. 1 wide receiver role with the graduation of Bru McCoy.
It’s been a little bit of everyone, but senior Kody Epps has been pulling away. In the rivalry game Friday against St. John Bosco (Bellflower, California), which is widely regarded as the best regular-season matchup in the country, Epps showed he is the leader of the corps and deserves more recruiting attention than he has been getting.
Epps had all three receiving touchdowns, 175 receiving yards and 11 receptions in Mater Dei’s 38-24 win over the Braves. He was also key in a fourth score, catching a long pass that put the Monarchs inside the 10-yard line.
Quarterback Bryce Young was once against superb and outplayed reigning ALL-USA Player of the Year DJ Uiagalalei, but Mater Dei couldn’t pull away like every other game this year.
Uiagalelei led Bosco to the end zone on their final three drives in the fourth quarter, but they could only score on one thanks in part to defense from cornerback Jaylin Davies, who broke up one pass on fourth-down and intercepted Uiagalelei’s final throw of the game.
The Monarchs affirmed that yes, they are the No. 1 team in the country, and yes, this rendition of the team looks better than last year’s.
Here are some takeaways:
Battle of the quarterbacks
According to the Fox Sports broadcast, this was the first time two top-ranked quarterbacks faced off since John Elway and Thomas Ramsey in the class of 1979.
Both Young and Uiagalelei showed some vintage moments. Young had a couple deep throws and long scrambles to get first downs. One thing he does particularly well is going through his progression before taking off. Many dual-threat quarterbacks rely on plays designed for them to run, but Young is maybe the best in the nation at creating plays when all falls apart.
If he’s not the best at that, it might be his counterpart at Bosco.
One play in particular that showcased the strengths of Uiagalelei. After Bosco forced a punt with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Uiagalelei escaped pressure and stepped up in the pocket, and then slid to the right to avoid more defenders while keeping his eyes downfield. He threw a 48-yard touchdown to receiver Kris Hutson.
On the next Bosco possession with a 14-point deficit, Uiagalelei got the drive started with a 41-yard strike to Loya on the sideline and then ran the ball 31 yards when Mater Dei blitzed hard. On his next run, he almost scored the touchdown – but it was called back for holding on the running back. Then, Uiagalelei made an astounding throw to wide receiver Beaux Collins right on the end zone line – but Collins couldn’t hang on.
On fourth-and-20, Bosco got a chance when Josh Hunter pushed Loya and was called for the pass interference. Mater Dei had been blitzing aggressively, but Uiagalelei wasn’t affected. He made strong throws even while being hit, but on the final throw of the drive, Davies made a nice pass break-up to get the ball back to the offense.
Davies makes the two biggest defensive plays through a limp
After Davies broke up that pass, Mater Dei went three-and-out. Bosco drove the ball downfield, in part as Mater Dei seemed content letting them gain some extra yards as long as they kept the ball in play and the clock ticking down with a 14-point lead.
Bosco took advantage, getting to the red zone with more than two minutes left. There was suddenly trouble for the Monarchs.
But Davies, who was seen limping during the game, came up with the defensive stop of the night. He intercepted a pass to Hutson near the goal line, just Uiagalelei’s second interception of the year.
Defensive highlights for St. John Bosco
Let’s start with a simple fact: This is just the second time this season Mater Dei has been held to under 40 points. Sure, Bosco lost and gave up 38, but the team hung in because of the defense that held Mater Dei scoreless in the fourth quarter.
One particular drive was perhaps the best defensive effort of any team against Mater Dei on the season. On a first down, Jarius Satele sacked Young. On the next play, the quarterback had several seconds to throw. Way too much time. But the coverage downfield was so strong, he couldn’t find anyone. Young got sacked again. He ran the next snap for a first down but a penalty nixed the gain, forcing a reply of downs. Young was sacked again. Mater Dei punted on about fourth-and-41.
If St. John Bosco has found the secret to stopping Young, they have some time to perfect this. It is expected the two teams will face one more time in the playoffs. We’ll see what they use and adapt from this game.
Mater Dei continues to get penalized
Bosco had some strong defense, but it shouldn’t have mattered if the Monarchs hadn’t missed out on a golden opportunity early.
The Monarchs, already up 21-3, could have blown the game wide open after sacking Uiagalelei and forcing an intentional grounding deep in Bosco territory.
But then Davies had an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a dropped catch. He then was called for pass interference. Linebacker Moses Sepulona was called for roughing the passer, and cornerback Domani Jackson for holding in the end zone. That more or less gave Bosco a free touchdown.
Mater Dei missed out on quite a few opportunities in the game because a player was flagged. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, as the Monarchs came away with the win, but the stress from Uiagalelei’s late drives needn’t happen if they could be better disciplined.
The race isn’t over
Mater Dei won and deserves to celebrate it.
But just a reminder — this season is not over. Last year, St. John Bosco won thee regular season matchup but lost in the championship game.
It would be a shocker if these two teams don’t meet one more time this season.
That game, should it happen, will determine their respective seasons.