HANFORD — Hanford forced five turnovers, scored 20 unanswered points in the second half and advanced to the next round of the playoffs in a 33-20 victory over Garces Memorial at the Neighbor Bowl on Friday.

“We told the defense at halftime that if we kept hitting the guy we thought we could get a couple more fumbles out of him,” Hanford coach Josh Young said. “Defensive line, up front, we played really well against the run.”

The defense forced three fumbles, had one interception and forced a turnover on downs. Three of those turnovers came in the second half, as they limited No. 9 seed Garces to six points — a 49-yard touchdown pass — over the final two quarters.

“We got that dog mentality,” Hanford linebacker Tyler Mello said. “We just knew that if we came out there and hit them that they couldn’t hit us back. We’re the hardest hitting team in the Valley.”

Hanford wide receiver and linebacker Juan Nuno had a fumble recovery and interception. Hanford running back and defensive end Travone Houston recovered a fumble. It was the eighth time this season the defense allowed 20 points or fewer in a game. Hanford linebacker Tyler Mello had a game-high 13 tackles and two sacks.

Hanford quarterback Cason Whitney had two rushing touchdowns, while a trio of running backs scored for the Bullpups and helped them remain unbeaten and move to 11-0 on the season. Whitney replaced usual starting quarterback Juaron Watts-brown, who was out of the game with a shoulder injury, and was 11-of-16 for 97 yards.

With nine seconds left in the half, the No. 1 seed Bullpups, who had a first-round bye, were driving to add to their 13-7 lead when Whitney was sacked and fumbled the ball. Rams linebacker Logan Bowers scooped up the fumble and returned it 65 yards for the touchdown as time expired in the half.

“It’s a football game, so there’s always stress when you’re down at halftime,” Young said. “It’s a situation we don’t want to be in, but we’ve been there before and we just have to trust the process and trust what we do.”

Trailing 14-13 at halftime of the CIF Central Section quarterfinals, the Bullpups came out and went on a 13-play, 78-yard drive to regain the lead on Whitney’s 1-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal. Houston was stopped on the 2-point conversion and the Bullpups led 19-14.

The drive was highlighted by Noah Noyola’s 18-yard catch on third-and-10 from Hanford’s own 37-yard line and running back Brandon Ramirez’s 30-yard run to set up the Bullpups inside the 10-yard line. Ramirez finished with a game-high 132 yards on 19 carries.

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On the ensuing drive, the Bullpups forced a fumble and recovered the ball at the Rams 12-yard line. Four plays later, it was Whitney again on the scramble for a 4-yard touchdown and 25-14 lead after the failed 2-point conversion.

“We just stuck to our assignments and we didn’t get our heads too into the hype of the game,” Mello said. “We just stuck to our assignments and made the sure tackle.”

Then it was Nuno coming up with an interception after Rams wide receiver Isaiah Bell couldn’t handle a high pass. The score remained the same to start the fourth quarter, but didn’t last long with Ramirez scoring on a 3-yard run.

“Excellent blocking, I hit the hole and it was wide open — touchdown,” Ramirez said.

The Bullpups scored 20 consecutive points to take a 33-14 lead after a successful 2-point conversion. The Rams scored one more time on a 49-yard touchdown pass, but the Bullpups were able to run out the clock on their next possession.

“We just executed the game plan better and just played our football,” Ramirez said.

Houston scored in the first quarter on a 1-yard run and Young followed in the second on a 4-yard run. Sandwiched in between was a 70-yard score by Rams receiver Don D’amato.

Houston finished with 14 yards on five carries and Young had 57 yards on 19 carries. Taryn Rubalcava had a team-high six catches for 51 yards.

Hanford will face No. 4 seed Tulare Western (10-2, 5-0 EYL) at the Neighbor Bowl next Friday at 7 p.m. The Mustangs defeated No. 13 seed Dinuba 47-10 in the quarterfinals.

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Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or ngarcia@hanfordsentinel.com. Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.

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