It took Javon Smith a little time to find his touch.
The Merced College quarterback had missed the last two-plus weeks with an ankle injury and the rust was apparent as he opened Saturday's game 4 for his first 16 passing.
Smith began to find a rhythm at the end of the first half and the big plays that eluded the Blue Devil passing game the last couple weeks showed up in the second half of a 38-27 victory over Sacramento City College at Stadium '76.
"I had to shake the rust off a little bit," said Smith, who passed for a career-high 381 yards and three touchdowns. "I was just so happy to get back out there. I could feel the difference in the second half. My touch got better and we were able to hit some big plays."
It was a nice recovery for the sophomore quarterback after things started off less than ideal.
His second pass attempt of the game was tipped and intercepted, setting up Sacramento City at the Merced College 28-yard line.
The Panthers (1-5) needed just one play to take advantage as Justin Moore found Nick Whitaker on a broken coverage for a 28-yard touchdown pass.
The Blue Devils (2-4) settled down after that, and answered at the end of the first quarter with an impressive 95-yard drive. Robert Pew punched it in from 6 yards out on the 12th play of the drive to give MC a 7-6 lead.
Sac City went back on top with about 7 minutes to play in the first half, but the Devils countered with back-to-back scoring drives to close out the half.
Cory Chapman (season-high 25 carries for 126 yards) scored on a 1-yard TD run and, after a Jordy Kaiser interception handed the ball right back to MC, Smith hit fullback Gabri Benavidez with a 3-yard TD pass to give the Devils a 21-12 lead at the half. It was just Merced's second halftime lead of the season.
"Turnovers are always big momentum swings," Kaiser said. "We weren't really looking for one. We'd have been just as happy with a three-and-out, but it's always a great feeling when you can help set your offense up. That score really gave us a lot of confidence going into the half."
It was all Smith in the second half.
After missing a number a deep balls in the first half, he found his range after the break with touchdown passes of 74 and 85 yards to Travis Marion (114 yards) and Trunell McMillon (177 yards). They helped MC piece together its best offensive showing of the season, racking up 553 yards.
The Blue Devil defense had a pretty nice afternoon as well. Linebacker Garret Nevitt was all over the field with a team-high 15 tackles and Sione Tongamoa chipped in 14, including 3½ of the team's seven sacks.
Desi Villanueva put the game out of reach with a 20-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.
"I think we were our own worst enemy in the first half with the turnover, the penalties and some drops," MC head coach Bob Casey said. "The important thing was we kept fighting through it and had ourselves in the game at halftime.
"The second half you could see Javon settle in. He was just throwing a different ball, and you could see it as it was falling into guys hands while they were in stride.
"We're still shifting guys around, trying to fill some of the holes created by all the injuries. Those fill-ins really stepped up and helped get it done today."
La Sierra 2, UC Merced 0
Heriberto Diaz (11 saves) did his best to keep the Bobcats (3-6, 3-5 Cal Pac) in it, but La Sierra finally beat him twice in the second half for a 2-0 victory at Bowl Field.
UC Merced 3, William Jessup 2
Kuuipolani Braceros' 19 kills and Valeria Mertinez's 16 helped the Golden Bobcats pull out a 25-19, 25-27, 25-16, 23-25, 15-8 victory over William Jessup at Hostetler Court. Genna Garrett had 53 assists and Shari Pandy added 14 kills as UCM improved to 10-6 overall and 3-1 in the Cal Pac.
UC Merced 2, William Jessup 1
ROCKLIN Becca Bright delivered the game-winning goal in the 88th minute to earn UCM a Cal Pac victory. Rachel Bachem added a goal and Maggie Morales had seven saves for the Bobcats (4-6, 2-5 Cal Pac).