NAPA -- Tyler Johnson knew the Merced defense had to come up with a stop.
The offense had just scored to reclaim the lead late in the third quarter.
Now here was an opportunity for the defense to put Napa away.
Johnson and a swarm of teammates did just that.
After a fumbled exchange, Napa quarterback Clinton Gorsuch found himself under a pile of Merced defenders.
It was all Merced from there as the offense opened up a 21-point lead -- and Merced went on to defeat the defending Sac-Joaquin Section champions 31-17 Friday night at Memorial Stadium.
"Right there, we knew we had to make a play," Johnson said. "That was a make-or-break play and we broke them."
It was another impressive showing for Merced (2-0).
The stakes rise again next week with a game against nationally ranked Fresno Edison, which bombed Fresno Central 70-27 Friday night.
"It only gets harder," Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. "We're going to play a team ranked 18th in the nation or something like that.
"We're going to have to find a way to control their athleticism."
Meanwhile, Scheidt's own athletes put on their own show.
Running back Stephon Mathis broke loose for an 80-yard touchdown run to give Merced a 10-0 lead late in the second quarter.
The senior took a toss around the corner, cut upfield and just kept running.
"The receivers made good blocks and the fullback kicked his guy out so there was a seam," said Mathis, who finished with 178 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
The game also marked the 2008 debut of star Bernard Bolden.
The do-everything senior didn't start or play much on offense.
He did make his presence felt with some punishing hits from his safety position -- and helped set up a late score with a 36-yard punt return.
Quarterback Allen Huddleston was impressive again as he had Napa defensive linemen grasping at air all night.
The elusive senior was at his best when the game was still in doubt.
He led Merced on three straight scoring drives that turned a 10-10 tie into a 31-10 lead.
Huddleston came up with big TD passes to Patrick Franey and Kenny Cooper.
"We knew we had to answer them after they tied the game," said Huddleston, who competed 8 of 14 passes for 154 yards. "We came out and picked up the tempo."
Merced's defense fed off the momentum and came up with back-to-back stops, putting the offense in position to finish things.
It was a defense that spent a lot of time on the field early in the game as Napa's ground attack chewed up 4 and 5 yards at a time.
Logan Hess finished with 90 yards on 18 carries.
"Napa is a good team," Johnson said. "We just had to keep pushing and pushing. We weren't going to lie down.
"This was a big win, to come in here and beat the defending section champs."
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.