STOCKTON -- Turns out, an ideal night for passing the football also can be ideal for defending the pass.
Not a drop of rain fell and the winds were mild during Oakdale's 22-9 victory Friday over Vista del Lago, which made what the Mustangs did on defense nothing short of the perfect way to lay claim to the section's Division 3 football crown.
Oakdale picked off four passes from Vista's prolific sophomore quarterback Matt Jimison, returning one for a score, and only a long punt return prevented the Mustangs from keeping their foe out of the end zone.
The result was Oakdale's third Sac-Joaquin Section banner, the second under head coach Trent Merzon, and a 13-1 record heading into a probable Northern California playoff berth.
"Our defense was awesome," Merzon said. "We really struggled on offense because Vista also did a great job on defense. But man, I'll tell you what, our defense was special."
How special was it?
Vista entered averaging better than 42 points and nearly 380 yards of offense, and was held to 146 total yards, only 14 in the second half.
Jimison, who had thrown for 2,490 yards and 37 scores against only nine interceptions, completed only 10 of 24 passes for 80 yards. In the second half, when the Eagles had to throw to get back in the game, he completed only one of six, good for 15 yards, and was picked off twice.
"We were trying to disrupt their routes and make their quarterback hold the ball longer than he's used to to let the line get there and get some coverage sacks," said senior defensive back Nik Garza, who had one of the picks. "The perfect weather made our performance that much nicer, but I knew we were doing to do what we needed to do to win."
Oakdale needed every bit of that defense to leave Lincoln High with the victory. Nikk Ryan did rumble for 170 yards on 27 carries for the Mustangs, but there were none of the trademark clock-eating marches by Oakdale until they were able to tick off the final 5 minutes, 13 seconds, following Vista del Lago's lone touchdown.
The game's biggest two plays both were made by the Oakdale defense. One set the tone for the game, the other broke the hearts of the 12-2 Eagles.
The first came on Vista's second play from scrimmage. Facing a second-and-22, Jimison tried to force a pass into the deep right flat. But senior defensive back Eddie Machado picked off the pass in stride at the 21. Seven strides later, he was in the end zone for a 7-0 Oakdale lead.
"Our coaches (defensive coordinator Hondo) Arpoika and (defensive backs coach Tim) Meyer dissected so much film that we knew what was coming," Machado said. "When I saw the ball in the air, my reaction was to go get it. It was a huge momentum changer and for me made the win that much sweeter."
The Eagles responded with their lone extended drive, a 14-play, 60-yard march that set up a 33-yard field goal by Anderz Mintz.
Oakdale took advantage of a shanked punt to score at the end of a 24-yard drive, with the final 21 on a pass from Spencer Thomas to Austin Jones. It gave Oakdale a 14-3 lead right before halftime and set up the second big statement play from the Mustang defense.
Oakdale was stopped at the Vista 3 on its first drive of the third quarter, and a procedure penalty pushed the ball back a yard. On first down, with the Eagles running out of the shotgun, running back Josh Pfeffer was sandwiched in the end zone between Niko Arpoika and Eric Barragan for a safety and a 16-3 Mustangs' lead.
"We watched a lot of film this week and I noticed their linemen were tipping whether it was a run or pass by the amount of pressure they were putting on their hands," Arpoika said. "On the safety, I could see it was going to be a run and once I saw the tackle pull, I was there."
Oakdale iced the win on the drive following the free kick, with Thomas hitting Marcus Northcutt for 30 yards and a 22-3 lead with 5:07 left in the third quarter.
Vista finally got in the end zone with 5:19 left when Pfeffer scored on a 1-yard run following his own 54-yard punt return. But the Eagles would not see the ball again.
Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 Championship
at Lincoln High School in Stockton
OAKDALE 22, VISTA DEL LAGO 9Vista del Lago 3 0 0 6 9
Oakdale 7 7 8 0 22
OAK Eddie Machado 21 interception return (Sean Harrity Kick)
VIS FG Anderz Mintz 33
OAK Austin Jones 21 pass from Spencer Thomas (Harrity kick)
OAK Safety, Josh Pfeffer tackled in end zone
OAK Marcus Northcutt 30 pass from Thomas (run failed)
VIS Pfeffer 1 run (pass failed)
MVP: Oakdale fullback Nikk Ryan had 27 carries for 170 yards, and the physical runner allowed Oakdale to run out the final 3:30 of the game. Ryan played a big role on the defensive side of the ball, as well, holding Vista del Lago to two first downs in the second half.
Offensive MVP: Oakdale QB Spencer Thomas didn't put up big numbers (4 of 10, 58 yards passing; 13 carries, minus-17 rushing), but he tossed TD passes of 21 yards to Austin Jones and 30 yards to Marcus Northcutt. He threw an early pick, but called a conservative game by design much of the night.
Defensive MVP: Oakdale DB Eddie Machado provided the biggest play of the night and it took place in the opening minutes, just like last year. He stepped in front of a Matt Jimison pass and returned it 21 yards for a TD just 3:36 into the game for a 7-0 lead. A year ago, Marcus Hernandez picked off the first pass of the game and ran it back for a TD to spark a 49-7 rout.
Decision of game: Oakdale coach Trent Merzon turning his punt-block team loose on an overwhelmed Vista del Lago punter. DB Bastian Jiminez blocked two punts and his pressure forced the punter to rush his next kick. It went just 15 yards, and Oakdale quickly scored on Austin Jones' 21-yard TD catch. That put Oakdale up 14-3 right before halftime.
Mistake of the game: Vista del Lago was too reliant on short passes, rarely challenging the Oakdale secondary deep. The Mustangs had 10 defenders crowded close to the line on some plays, and were able to quickly make the tackle after 2 or 3 yards. The Mustangs eventually stopped the short passes, too.
Stat of the game: Oakdale's defense forced five turnovers four interceptions thrown by Vista del Lago QB Matt Jimison (he had thrown just nine in his first 13 games combined) and a fumble. The defense blocked two punts during the first half, as well.
Oakdale picks off tipped pass
Oakdale defense records a sack
Oakdale hooks up on scoring play
Oakdale defense records safety
Oakdale had good game through air
Oakdale blocks a Vista del Lago punt
Oakdale's Eddie Machado returns pick for TD