If a team’s fortitude is measured by its ability to respond to adversity, Merced College was found wanting Saturday night.
Despite turning in its best half of football this season in the first half, the Blue Devils’ nonconference game against Shasta turned on a blown call by the officials late in the third quarter at Stadium 76. Shasta linebacker Jesse Robbins recovered a Blue Devils fumble while laying on his belly but was allowed to get up and return the ball 30 yards for a touchdown.
Merced never recovered, squandering a 15-point, third-quarter lead and falling to the Knights 34-33. Merced fell to 1-2 with its second home collapse.
“We came out big-headed in the second half, thinking the game was already won,” said Josh Stevens, who had a game-high 175 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. “We should have stayed on them. We lost our focus in the second half and now have to rally back together next week.”
The Blue Devils were guilty of doing everything teams are supposed to avoid in order to win. They committed 19 penalties for a whopping 257 yards and turned over the ball five times.
Even with all of that, Merced had a chance to win going away. A season-high 306 rushing yards was a big part of that.
Four Merced penalties all but handed the Knights (2-1) the first score on their opening series, but Stevens answered on the Blue Devils’ next play from scrimmage. He broke free for a 75-yard scoring run to give Bob Casey’s squad a 7-6 lead.
It was the start of a dominating first half as Merced ate up 19 minutes, 59 seconds of possession time and held Shasta’s vaunted passing attack to 77 yards.
The Blue Devils expanded their lead to 21-6 on touchdown runs of 15 yards by Stephon Cross (15 carries for 67 yards) and 2 yards by Stevens.
Cory Sindorf (125 total yards) answered for the Knights with the first of his three touchdowns – on the same reverse play – just before halftime, but Merced countered with a blocked punt that set up a Juwan Brown 6-yard touchdown run and sent the Blue Devils into intermission with a 27-12 lead.
The teams combined for four turnovers and three missed field goals in the third quarter.
A Stevens fumble set up Shasta’s first score of the second half, but Merced’s Devron Davis provided a big answer, returning his third interception in three games 30 yards for a score and a 33-18 lead.
Davis’ pick six might have been the nail in the coffin, but a Cross fumble late in the third quarter gave the Knights life. The ball got kicked around in the pile before rolling out to Robbins. While the officials tried to sort out where the ball was, the Shasta sophomore got up and sprinted for a controversial touchdown.
“You’ve got to battle through adversity even if the refs give whatever,” Cross said. “We let what the refs were doing affect us too much and got out of our game.”
Sindorf brought the Knights within 33-31 on a 7-yard run with 7:01 to play, and Jesus Gutierrez completed the comeback with a 32-yard field goal with 4:13 to play.
The Blue Devils had a chance to win in the final minute, but a potential touchdown catch went through the hands of Reginal Harris. Brown was intercepted on the next play.