The potential game-winning field goal sailed wide right with 11 seconds left on the clock. As the referees signaled no good, it was like a punch to the stomach for the Merced College football team, which had made some big plays late to put itself in position to get its first win of the season.
Instead the Blue Devils were licking their wounds of an 0-2 start with a 29-27 loss to De Anza College (1-1) on Saturday night at Stadium ‘76.
“It’s the type of game you live for,” said Blue Devils sophomore linebacker Danny Chavez. “You’re out there down with 2 minutes left and you need to make a big play. It’s tough to lose the way we did.”
The game had so many swings.
The Dons battled back from a 21-7 deficit at the half to score 22 consecutive points, including a 99-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter that gave De Anza a 29-21 lead.
The drive was engineered by backup quarterback Eduardo Andrade after starter Oliver Sversky was knocked out of the game after a big hit late in the third quarter.
The Blue Devils answered the Dons’ long drive with their first touchdown drive of the second half. Merced College marched 63 yards on eight plays. Tristan Crowley, who started the game at quarterback and then was replaced by Darrion Cole to start the fourth quarter, subbed in after Cole’s helmet came off on a 9-yard run. Crowley scored on a 9-yard touchdown to pull the Blue Devils within 29-27 of the Dons with just over 2 minutes left in the game.
Crowley’s couldn’t hook up with receiver Elijah Macklin on the two-point conversion that would have tied the game.
After struggling in the second half, the Blue Devils defense came up big when they needed. They tackled De Anza running back Javon Sturns for a 17-yard loss on second down.
That set up a third-and-20 situation and Andrade scrambled to the right and threw a ball up down the sideline. Chavez tipped the ball in the air and then was able to bring down the interception to set up the MC offense at the Dons’ 39-yard line with 1:34 left in the game.
“I saw the ball in the air and I thought it was a little high,” Chavez said. “I thought, let me try to grab it.”
Cole made a big throw on fourth-and-15 as he found Markus Brady for a 17-yard gain to give the Blue Devils a first down. The Blue Devils move the ball down to the 10-yard with 19 seconds left. Cole tried to spike the ball to stop the clock, but was penalized for trying to spike the ball from a shotgun formation.
Merced College coach Bob Casey had to burn his final timeout to avoid a 10-second runoff. Cole took one shot in the end zone, but couldn’t connect with Macklin.
With no timeouts, Casey opted to go for the 32-yard field goal with 14.8 second left, but Joe Lema’s kick was wide right. Lema seemed upset with the hold.
“I’ll get to watch it on film,” Casey said. “Supposedly the hold wasn’t good, but every kicker is going to say the hold wasn’t good and every holder is going to say the snap wasn’t good. The bottom line is the ball didn’t go through the uprights.”
Casey did see improvements from the season-opening 21-7 loss to Foothill College.
Crowley got the start and was able to lead the Blue Devils on three touchdown drives in the first half. Merced College racked up 202 yards rushing in the first half.
Leka Lotulelei finished with 112 rushing yards on 12 carries, including a 58-yard touchdown run on the Blue Devils’ first drive of the game. Crowley finished with 57 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 11 carries.
However, after the offense stalled in the third quarter with Crowley struggling with the passing game and taking a safety on a zone-read play, Casey went to Cole in the fourth quarter.
“I just want consistency,” Casey said. “They’ve got to know where they’re at and they need to be a leader. That’s what I want: a leader and consistency.”
The Blue Devils hit the road next week to Marysville to face Yuba City at 6 p.m. Casey wants to see his young team continue to improve.
“We get in our heads, not settling in, we need to just play,” Casey said. “That’s part of being young. I thought we gained a lot from last week to this week, but we came up short.”