New quarterback. Motivated archrival. First-game nerves.
No problem for the Modesto Junior College football team.
MJC stuck to Plan A pound it inside and screen-pass everywhere and hung a 51-35 loss on the Merced Blue Devils. The Pirates totaled 624 yards and led 51-21 after three quarters Saturday night to all but cement their fifth straight win over Merced.
The Gateway (to Yosemite) Trophy, the rivalry's totem, was perched on a cooler behind the MJC bench. For the fifth straight time and the 11th in the last 13 meetings, it stays in Modesto.
"Opening at home was probably a good thing," MJC coach Sam Young said. "A lot of players on both sides played their first collegiate game. It wasn't exactly the most beautiful game ever played."
The Pirates, or the majority of about 2,500 at MJC Stadium, won't sweat style points on Sept. 1. Modesto pounced on a series of early errors by Merced and led 21-0 before the game was 10 minutes old.
Six of MJC's seven touchdowns were scored by freshmen, three by slotback Ricky Fuentes.
Freshman quarterback TeeJay Gordon, the successor to Division I QBs Devin Combs and Quinton McCown, started fast and dodged mid-game errors. His first touchdown pass, a 40-yard bomb to a quite-alone Bryan Morris, was set up by a nifty pump-fake to Fuentes in the flat.
The play indicated that Gordon, who had not taken a snap since his senior year at East Union High two years ago, can handle the next level. He completed 23 of 29 passes for 203 yards and a pair of TDs and also rushed 10 yards for a score.
"After the first play, I got in the flow," said Gordon, who admitted to a few pregame jitters. "I just need more reps. I'm still learning the offense."
The curly haired Gordon, 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, lacks the arm strength and the size of Combs and McCown. His accuracy and speed, however, at least match the previous duo. MJC rushed for 421 downhill-churning yards, featuring three running backs over the 100-yard mark, thanks in part to Gordon's threat with the ball.
"He's a dart thrower and he's going to get better," Young said. "The way this offense is set up, you don't need a strong arm or fancy patterns."
Merced, anxious to atone for last year's 72-26 drubbing, stumbled early:
The Blue Devils botched a field-goal snap, followed five plays later by the deep ball to Morris. 7-0.
One play after linebacker Andrew Morgan's 19-yard fumble return, Fuentes raced 46 yards on a reverse to the left. 14-0.
Two plays later, corner Dannon Graham stepped in front of a sideline pass by Trevor Mew and dashed 34 yards to the Merced 9-yard line. On third down from the 4, receiver David Gianesin slipped easily into the end zone on the Pirates's free-release screen. 21-0.
"You can't spot a team like that 21 points and expect to make it up," Merced coach Bob Casey summarized. "Modesto is too good and too disciplined to make mistakes against."
Modesto again will rely on its huge offensive line against a much more difficult schedule. It pummeled Merced, especially in the second half. Tackles Chris Holloway (6-9, 315) and Rumzee Fakhouri (6-4, 305), guards Marco Camacho (6-4, 270) and Kacey Stout (6-1, 280) and center Rudy Hernandez (6-9, 290) controlled the game.
The result was big production by Marcus Hernandez (21 carries, 146 yards, TD), Fuentes (4 carries, 103 yards, 3 TDs) and Aaron Fields (17 carries, 106 yards).
Fuentes took a shot at baseball last year before he again donned the shoulder pads. His trio of touchdowns, two on nifty reverses, told him he's made the right choice.
"I missed the emotional part of the game," he said. "It (football) is more of a team thing."
MJC, which ran the most plays of any team in California last year, stayed true to form with 87 snaps, 30 more than the Blue Devils.
"We kept pushing the pace," Young said. "It had a cumulative effect in the second half. They (the linemen) get up at 6 a.m. and lift for six months."
Merced was heartened, however, by a late flurry while reserves on both sides saw action in the fourth quarter. Mew (30-16-1--223) found Tyrell Vinson for a 10-yard TD pass. Then, with MJC threatening behind backup quarterback Jackson Meyer, the Blue Devils' Robert Askew snagged a tipped pass and dashed past the Modesto bench 92 yards for a TD.
With 3:21 left, Merced climbed within two scores at 51-35. Modesto returned its first-team offense to the team and ate the remaining time.
"You just don't know when to sub (substitute) down," Young said. "They had two onside kicks and we barely got them. It got crazy."
But in the end, it worked.