ATWATER -- There's wild and wacky, and then there's the game-winning drive Merced pieced together on Saturday night.
No one could explain it.
Or how it worked.
It just did.
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Saddled by penalties and facing a third-and-45 situation from its own 40, Merced orchestrated a fourth-quarter drive for the ages.
There were five offensive penalties, including two on one play, a slick 32-yard run by Stephon Mathis and a pass interference call on Loomis Del Oro on fourth down.
Mathis eventually capped the series with a 2-yard plunge to break a 14-14 tie.
Merced then snuffed out Del Oro’s final drive when Tyler Johnson rushed quarterback Mason Magleby and forced a wobbly throw that Allen Huddleston intercepted on the 3-yard line.
That one last defensive stand — which concluded with 11 seconds remaining, wrapped up Merced’s nervous 21-14 win at Falcon Field.
“We learned a lot about ourselves on that drive,” Huddleston said. “Penalties were killing us, but we learned that with heart, you can do it.
“You can do anything.”
Things looked bleak for Merced (3-1), which took nearly three quarters to shake off the hangover from last week’s whipping at Fresno Edison.
The offense was sloppy and out of sync, and the defense struggled to contain Del Oro’s Magleby and his bull-dozing running back Bryce Pratt.
Pratt scored two first-quarter touchdowns — largely off the work of Magleby, who completed his first four passes — to give Del Oro (1-3) a 14-7 lead at the intermission.
“We couldn’t get things going early,” said all-purpose hero Bernard Bolden. “We had to pick the intensity up. “Last week, we got down and Edison kept on attacking. We couldn’t let that happen again.”
Bolden made sure of that.
With 2:43 left in the third quarter and Merced in a punting situation, Bolden — acting as the punter — took matters into his own hands.
The do-everything senior faked the punt and raced 54 yards untouched to make it 14-14.
The play was designed as a fake but Bolden didn’t hear the coaching staff yelling the call from the sideline. Instead, he acted on instinct.
“Coach said he wanted me to run it but I didn’t hear him,” Bolden admitted later. “I just saw the hole and took off.”
The game-winning drive was far from dazzling.
Five penalties and a sack put Merced in a third-and-45 at its own 40 with less than four minutes left. Then fortunes turned.
Suddenly, Merced could do no wrong.
With Del Oro sitting in a prevent defense, Mathis rumbled up the middle on a draw for 32 yards to set up a fourth-and-13 at the Del Oro 28-yard line.
“We called draw, which is a conservative play because we wanted to protect the ball,” Merced coach Rob Scheidt said. “But hey, when he wants to, (Mathis) makes plays.”
Del Oro was whistled for pass interference on Huddleston’s fourth-down incompletion — and four plays later, Mathis plowed his way into the end zone with the go-ahead touchdown.
Mathis finished with 187 yards and two touchdowns.
“The desire to win tonight was incredible,” Scheidt said. “Just incredible.”