MANTECA -- Defense. It's becoming a lost art in the Stanislaus District as prolific spread offenses threaten to turn the field into a pinball game played on grass.
Some teams surrender 30 or 40 points, yet still win. Many enter a game knowing they'll need 30-plus points for a victory.
Then there's Oakdale, where defense is played just like it was four decades ago.
"We practice with incredible intensity, and we've got to watch it to make sure no one gets hurt," said tackle Hondo Arpoika, a three-year starter. "We come out on Friday and kick the intensity up higher."
Oakdale turned in one of the district's top defensive performances, as Arpoika and his aggressive unit led the way to a 28-7 win over Manteca. It earns Oakdale a sixth straight Valley Oak League title.
The Mustangs (8-1, 6-0) have allowed 34 points in six league games, or 5.6 a game. They're yielding 10 points a game overall no other VOL team is keeping foes under 23 a game and that was at Manteca. Sierra (8-1, 5-1), which can earn a piece of the title if it beats Weston Ranch and Oakdale is upset by Sonora in next week's finales, is second-best at 26 per game.
Oakdale established its identity as Nikk Ryan raced around the right end for a blindside sack that drove Manteca's quarterback into the turf. He, the Arpoika twins Hondo and Miko and Eric Barrigan were too fast for Manteca's large line to handle.
"Those guys were monstrous on the line," said Oakdale coach Trent Merzon, whose club is The Bee's top-ranked team. "We've got quick guys. We worked on keeping our pad level low, getting off the ball quickly. We wanted everything fast."
The pace kept Manteca (5-4, 4-2) from mounting consistent drives, and means the Buffaloes face a must-win versus East Union to make the playoffs. It also played a role in the biggest play of the game, a fourth-down stop by Oakdale late in the first half.
The Mustangs were up 14-0, but Manteca needed just inches for a first down at the Oakdale 20 with 38 seconds in the half. Manteca used its beef on a quarterback sneak, but the ball didn't go forward.
The Mustangs celebrated on the way to the locker room, and that emotion stayed with them. The Buffs walked, disheartened and tired, to halftime.
"We wanted to play fast. Fast out of the huddle. Fast to the line. Fast to the huddle," said Merzon, who got big nights from fullback Ryan (14 carries, 116 yards, two TDs) and Austin Jones (three catches, 61 yards, two TDs). "We felt if we maintained that fast pace, Manteca would tire. But it means we have to be in shape, and we need depth, too."
After Ryan tore through Manteca for big runs, backup Josh Watts ripped off two big runs in the third quarter to set up Ryan's second score. Each fullback had big runs on the drive, and Ryan finished it with a 5-yard TD run in the third period.
That pushed Oakdale's lead to 21-7, and denied Manteca the momentum it had hoped to generate via Eric Laurel's 28-yard TD run minutes earlier.
"We need guys like Josh to hop into a spot like that and deliver," Merzon said. "Josh got us some good yards, and that lets us get Nikk out of there for a while. Manteca's much bigger, but we saw on film a lot of those guy are going both ways."
Dwayne Finney had set up Oakdale's first score with an interception and an 18-yard return, leaving the Mustangs just 20 yards from the end zone.
The Mustangs didn't throw often, but they made them count. Jones caught a short ball on the right sideline from Spencer Thomas, and raced across the field before cutting into the end zone on the left side to put Oakdale up 14-0 in the first half.
He later caught a ball in the end zone, as the 6-foot-2 Jones was able to outjump his defender in the left corner. His two-point catch made it 28-7.
Four times Manteca drove into Oakdale territory in the second half, but the Mustangs' defense used sacks to stop three of them. Once it was Ryan storming in, then Hondo Arpoika, who jumped up and beat his chest as Oakdale's crowd went wild.
Manteca was averaging 37 points a game and had scored at least 27 points in each of its games.
"You see the emotion out there, the way we play for each other," said Arpoika, whose father Hondo is the defensive coordinator. "Tonight, it was up to us in the front to keep Manteca's offensive line from messing with our second line of guys. We needed those guys free to make the tackles."
Oakdale quarterback Spencer Thomas hits Austin Jones for a TD (Richard T. Estrada)
Oakdale quarterback Spencer Thomas hits Austin Jones for another TD (Richard T. Estrada)
Nikk Ryan scores a touchdown for Oakdale (Richard T. Estrada)
Manteca forces Oakdale fumble (Richard T. Estrada)