Stephon Mathis caught the pass behind the line of scrimmage.
The Merced senior then sidestepped two Tracy defenders, exploded through a hole and sprinted 27 yards for a touchdown.
Just like that, a dicey fourth-down play was turned into a big second-half touchdown."
"Way to make something out of nothing," teammate Bernard Bolden said as he patted Mathis on the helmet.
Merced's stars came through when they were needed, as Merced pulled away late for a 30-14 win over Tracy in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs Friday night at Stadium '76.
There was Mathis and his 156 rushing yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
There was Bolden's 95 rushing yards and a 64-yard touchdown catch that finally gave Merced (10-1) some breathing room early in the fourth quarter.
There was Allen Huddleston tossing three second-half touchdowns.
Just as important was Nathan Mayfield coming up with two big sacks in the second half to help slow down Tracy's offense.
Merced needed the big-time plays after it went into the half with just a 9-7 lead.
"Scary," Mayfield said. "That was an intense game.
"This is my senior year and I've been in that situation before last year with some great seniors.
"In that situation, you just have to suck it up and keep pushing hard."
Merced had just a two-point lead at intermission despite running the ball up and down the field in the first half.
However, two mishandled snaps forced Merced to settle for a field goal on its first drive.
An intentional grounding call on Huddleston helped stall another drive.
"At halftime, we talked about finishing our drives," Mathis said. "We had to start getting in the end zone."
With a little improvisation, Mathis turned things around in the second half with his touchdown catch.
"I told Allen if he's scrambling to look for me," Mathis said. "He saw me and I saw an opening."
Mathis gave Merced a scare when he left with an ankle injury with just over 5 minutes left in the game.
However, Mathis says he'll be ready to go next week against Modesto Johansen.
Tracy (7-4) couldn't stop Merced's ground game. Mathis and Bolden (95 yards) helped Merced rack up 295 rushing yards.
After struggling to get off the field in the first half, Merced's defense came up with some big stops in the second half.
Merced linebacker Tyler Johnson recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass to help stop two Tracy drives in the first half.
The only second-half blemish was a 60-yard touchdown pass from Preston Mattos to Kenny Miks that cut the lead to 16-14.
"Our defense gave up one big play and one drive," Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. "We gave up some third downs in the first half and in the second half we didn't."
Merced finally put the game away when Bolden broke a tackle and took a swing pass 64 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
Huddleston later found a wide open Kenny Cooper for a 21-yard touchdown for the 30-14 margin.
"At halftime, I was wondering what was going on myself," Bolden said. "I was questioning myself, wondering why we weren't getting the ball in the end zone.
"I guess we figured it out in the second half."
TRACY 0 7 7 0 -- 14
MERCED 3 6 7 14 -- 30
MER -- D.J. Cherf 22 FG
TRA -- Jamaris Knighten 2 run (Max Garrigan kick)
MER -- Stephon Mathis 5 run (bad snap, run failed)
MER -- Mathis 27 pass from Allen Huddleston (Cherf kick)
TRA -- Kenny Miks 60 pass from Preston Mattos (Garrigan kick)
MER -- Bernard Bolden 64 pass from Huddleston (Cherf kick)
MER -- Kenny Cooper 21 pass from Huddleston (Cherf kick).
Records: Tracy 7-4; Merced 10-1.