MISSION VIEJO -- San Clemente had threatened in previous years to beat Mission Viejo, but the Tritons had never had the kind of advantages that they took into Friday night's showdown.
But if ever a team is snake-bit against another, it almost assuredly is San Clemente against Mission Viejo.
ESPNLA No. 8 Mission Viejo answered the challenge in resounding fashion by shutting down No. 9 San Clemente and scoring a 29-21 South Coast League victory before about 4,000.
The score was closer than the game. Mission opened a 23-0 lead at halftime -- after Doug Ruggles returned a fumble 37 yards -- and fought off the yawns in the second against an opponent that had averaged 37.6 points.
The defense, led by Ryan Harris and Anthony Pierce, limited San Clemente to 80 yards rushing though the Tritons had averaged 251; San Clemente's Mike Elespuru carried 19 times for only 48 yards.
In the passing game, San Clemente's Travis Wilson completed 13-of-26 passes for 145 yards, 81 over the final 16 minutes, with an interception.
Mission Viejo hasn't been beaten by San Clemente since 1999 -- coach Bob Johnson's first year -- and this was clearly the best team that San Clemente brought into the annual South Coast contest. Yet this game wasn't close until the very end.
With the victory, Mission Viejo (6-2, 2-0) has positioned itself to win the league title by defeating its primary challenger. San Clemente (8-1, 2-1) hasn't won a league title since 1999 -- the last year it beat the Diablos.
Although running back Jahleel Pinner (ankle) did not play, the contest marked the return of Buzzy Yokoyama to the Mission lineup. He had been injured in the first game with a foot injury, but he looked outstanding in the first quarter as he broke tackles and scored on runs of five and 15 yards for a 14-0 first quarter lead. Zach Christensen added a 41-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, and 93 seconds later Ruggles returned Wilson's fumble 37 yards for a 23-0 lead with 4:00 left. Yokoyama, who tweaked his foot later in the game, carried 12 times for 90 yards. When he left, he was replaced by Austin Reuland, who carried 15 times for 88.
Mission quarterback Alex Bridgford was nearly perfect in the first half and finished the game nine of 13 for 117 yards with an interception.
San Clemente had a chance to salvage the half after Wilson's deep pass to Herbert Gamboa covered 43 yards -- accounting for 43 percent of the Tritons' total first-half yardage -- to the 15. But from the seven-yard line, Wilson couldn't see two open receivers in the end zone on third down and then Bret Miller's 24-yard field goal was blocked by Pierce.
"This was a great win for us tonight," Johnson said. "We had it, and then tried to make it something (close) at the end. I warned them at halftime, we had this game but had to play the second half."
San Clemente's first score came on Nick Pasquale's 59 yard interception return with 9:39 left in the third quarter, which made it 23-7. An interception by Harris and 26-yard return set up a 33-yard drive, all of it gained by Reuland on seven carries for a 29-7 advantage with 3:58 remaining in the third quarter; kicker Christensen missed the PAT, his second of the night.
San Clemente's offense finally scored with 8:12 left in the game when Wilson connected with Christian Bailey for four yards. Wilson threw another TD pass, five yards to Elespuru, with 2:33 remaining to cut the deficit to 29-21, and then recovered the onside kick at the Mission 49. Wilson overthrew open Herbert Gamboa deep downfield, and a fourth-down play ended in Wilson being sacked by Garrett Marino for the second time. The Utah-bound Wilson was sacked three times in total and was pressured most of the night.
The difference in the game was the first half. Johnson said that it was probably Mission's best of the season.
"Probably, both sides of the ball," Johnson said. "We were looking forward to this game. It puts us in a real good spot."