The Oakdale Mustangs varsity football team treated the crowd in the Corral to a thrilling game on Friday, Nov. 4, before falling to the visiting Roseville Tigers 28-21 in the first round of the 2022 Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs. The Mustangs showed an abundance of character, grit, and determination during the game, coming from way behind to take a lead, only to surrender it late in the fourth quarter, and then getting oh so close to tying the game in the final minute.
“We did what we’ve been doing all year long,” said head coach Trent Merzon. “We’ve been consistent all year, struggling in certain areas on both sides of the ball … It seems in big moments we make mistakes.”
Merzon’s observation captured the essence of this game. The seventh seeded Mustangs kicked off to the 10th seeded Tigers with a squib kick, which the Mustangs nearly recovered. Nevertheless, the ball did end up in the hands of the Tigers who began with great field position at their own 48-yard line. Using a mixture of short passes and short runs, the Tigers went 52 yards on eight plays to draw first blood in the game and were up 7-0 following the extra point.
Then things got interesting, albeit a bit frustrating, for Mustang fans. The Mustangs, starting at their own 20, went 3 and out, and the Tigers, under senior quarterback Brandon Graydon (16 rushes for 70 yards and 16-29 passing for 238 yards), began to march again. Following a 27-yard completion from Graydon to senior wide receiver Liam Crow (9 receptions for 131 yards) down to the Mustang 25, the Mustang defense dug in and showed that great grit and determination to succeed that has been a hallmark of Trent Merzon-coached teams over the span of the past 23 years, stopping the Tigers on 4th and 3 at the Oakdale 18-yard line. On their first play following the defensive stop however, the Mustangs fumbled away the ball, and the Tigers were in business at the Oakdale 19. But once again the grit, determination, and hard-nosed play of the Mustang defense kicked in. Following a questionable pass interference call, which took the ball to the Oakdale 9, the Tigers managed a 4-yard gain by Graydon to the Mustang 5. The Mustang defense then snuffed out 4 consecutive plunges into the middle of the line by Graydon in an impressive goal line stand as the first quarter came to a close.
It seemed that the momentum had shifted to the Mustangs as the home team took over just a foot short of the goal line, and, indeed, the Mustangs were able to punch the ball out to their own 22 on impressive runs by Gabe McDonald (8 runs for 42 yards), quarterback Mick Merzon, and a 15-yard scamper around the left end by Jace Rau (7 runs for 33 yards). With Mick Merzon unable to pass due to an injury, junior Tommy Chance went under center, while Merzon moved to a receiver position, and tried the Mustangs’ first pass of the game. Merzon broke free and was 2-steps behind the Roseville defender; however, Chance (12-18 for 130 yards) overshot Merzon. The Mustangs were also hurt on the drive by two false start penalties. McDonald’s punt was returned by Tiger deep back Joel Bradley 23-yards to the Mustang 42 and, on the first play from scrimmage, Graydon hit Crow for a 42-yard touchdown pass, which, following Bradley’s extra point, increased the Tigers’ lead to 14-0.
“We put ourselves in a hole,” said Coach Merzon, referring to his aforementioned comment about mistakes, “(and) their quarterback made some great plays tonight.”
Merzon’s comment rang true again on the next Mustang possession as the Mustangs fumbled at their own 22-yard line and the live ball was picked up by the Tigers, who advanced it to the Mustang 2-yard line. It took Graydon one play to punch in the score. Bradley’s kick went wide, but the Mustangs were indeed in a hole 20-0 halfway through the second quarter.
At that point, it seemed that the Mustangs collectively said, “Enough! This is our house and we need to play Mustang football,” which is exactly what happened. Taking the ball at their own 13 following a holding penalty on the kick off, Cameron Guthrie (8 carries for 49 yards) ripped off gains of 14 and 11 yards and Chance, alternating with Merzon at quarterback, hit Merzon (10 receptions for 102 yards) on back-to-back passes of 11 and 17 yards. Merzon capped the 87-yard, 9 play drive with a 5-yard scamper around right end for the first Mustang score of the evening. McDonald’s kick made the score 20-7 in favor of Roseville. The Mustang defense then held the Tigers to 3 and out, and, with 1:19 remaining in the first half, the Mustangs were in business at their own 31-yard line. Chance hit Merzon for gains of 7 and 9-yards respectively, McDonald rumbled for 18-yards up the middle and Chance hit Mason Ahm for a 12-yard gain down to the Roseville 21 with time running out. On the penultimate play of the half, the Tigers intercepted a Chance pass near the end zone to end the Mustang drive, but the momentum had clearly shifted to Oakdale.
Receiving the kickoff to open the third quarter, Coach Merzon inserted two new running backs: seniors Zach Stott (11 carries for 62 yards) and Alex Jones (7 carries for 61 yards), and the move paid dividends right away as, led by Stott and Jones, the Mustangs drove 66-yards on 6 plays with Jones scoring on a 25-yard sweep around right end. McDonald’s kick was good and narrowed the Roseville lead to 20-14. On the ensuing possession, the Tigers ran 11-plays only to come up empty on an errant field goal attempt. The Mustangs answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive, mixing runs by Guthrie, Stott and Jones with passes from Chance to Merzon and Jones, to score on a 3-yard Jace Rau run. McDonald’s kick gave the Mustangs a 21-20 lead and it seemed that the home team was in control as the third quarter came to an end.
The home crowd got even more excited on the next Roseville series when Chance intercepted a running back option pass by Brady Ranallo intended for Graydon, giving the Mustangs possession of the ball at their own 41. The Tiger defense, however, dug in and the Mustangs were forced to punt after three running plays. McDonald’s punt soared 41 yards and was not returned, coming to rest at the Roseville 12. Mustang fans were enthused with the Tigers deep in their own territory. Graydon, however, took the wind out of the Mustangs’ sails with a 74-yard strike to Bradley for a touchdown. Graydon then hit Crow for a two-point conversion, giving the Tigers a 28-21 lead. But the Mustangs were certainly not finished. Taking the ball at their own 20, with the Delta breeze at their backs, the Mustangs methodically mixed runs by Stott and Jones and passes from Chance to Merzon to advance the ball to the Roseville 9-yard line, where they faced a 4th down and 1-yard to go. Throughout the game, the Mustang offensive line and backs had been able to consistently gain at least 2-yards on dives up the middle, and many in the Corral thought the Mustangs would easily get the first and goal. But that was not to be. In line with Coach Merzon’s earlier comment, “It seems in big moments, we make mistakes,” on 4th and 1, the Mustangs got hit with a 5-yard false start penalty making the down a much more difficult 4th and 6 with just over a minute to play in the game. The Mustangs tried a pass and Chance’s throw was intercepted by the Tigers in the end zone to end the drive and Oakdale’s season.
Overall, this thriller of a game involved two evenly matched teams. The Mustangs outgained the Tigers 371 yards to 329, gaining 241 yards on 47 carries rushing and 130 yards passing with Chance completing 12 out of 18 throws for 130 yards. Mistakes in critical situations, including two lost fumbles, two pass interceptions, and penalties (9 penalties for 50 yards compared to 6 for 45 yards for Roseville), plus two big pass plays by Roseville were the difference in the game. The Mustangs finished the season with a record of 6-5, dropping their final four games of the season. But no one in attendance on Friday night can say the Mustangs did not give their all. Down 20-0, the Mustangs came back to take the lead and dominate most of the second half.
Despite losing, they certainly lived up to the Mustang legacy of gritty, hard-played football. Coach Merzon summed it all up perfectly: “I’m proud of our kids; proud of our effort.”