Merced coach Rob Scheidt had to go to "Plan B" early against Atwater.
With the Bears' do-it-all star Jaquari People on the sidelines with a sprained left ankle, Scheidt turned to his other weapons.
Players such as Errol Dennis, Devonte Mays and Bradley Adamson came up with big plays when called upon as Merced rolled to a 34-6 win over the Falcons in Santa Fe Bowl 42 in the Central California Conference opener for both teams on Thursday night at Veterans Stadium.
"A lot of our gameplan was to get the ball to No. 5 (People)," said Scheidt, whose star never returned to the game. "He gets hurt early and we had to go away from it. I'm glad both Errol and Devonte ran the ball well."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Modesto Bee
The Bears (1-0 CCC, 3-3 overall) started the game on a roll, marching 70 yards on four plays for a touchdown on their first drive. Dennis set up the score with a 47-yard run. One play later, Eli Gutierrez found Adamson for an 11-yard touchdown pass to give Merced a 7-0 lead.
Merced got the ball right back when linebacker Jesse Ayala intercepted an Andrew Avila pass and returned it to the Falcons' 24-yard line.
Adamson caught a 15-yard pass and was flipped in the air, but held on the ball to move the ball down to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, fullback Chris Bernat powered his way into the end zone.
Before Atwater could catch its breath it was staring at a 14-0 deficit.
"They outplayed us that first five minutes of the game," Falcons coach Bob Valladao said. "We killed ourselves on offense with those two turnovers. I thought we played well to hold them to 14 points the rest of the half. I thought if we played well on defense we'd have a shot in the second half, but they made too many big plays."
Ayala was all over the field, also recovering a fumble. Merced held Atwater to just 218 yards of total offense.
It was the second time this year the Bears have faced the shotgun Wing-T after opening against Clovis West.
"It helped a lot, because Atwater runs a lot of the same plays," Ayala said. "Coach Scheidt told us to play like you're playing Clovis West. We played hard."
After turning the ball over on its first two possessions, the Falcons (0-1, 3-3) went on a 15-play drive that took more than 8 minutes off the clock, but weren't able to cash in.
The big plays that have been there for Atwater in its first five games never came.
"We were a shoestring away a couple times," Valladao said. "Their 'backers did a good job on our plays. The big plays just weren't there."
The Bears received some bad news before the game when they arrived at Golden Valley. Senior lineman Emery Gray's father, Carnell Brinson, was killed in a car accident Thursday morning.
Scheidt had to pull Gray from the training room as he was getting taped up to tell him his mother was here.
"It affected us," Ayala said. "That's our brother. We were inspired to play for him."
The Bears came out with the same kind of explosiveness in the second half as Devonte Mays broke free for a 54-yard touchdown run on Merced's second play of the third quarter to extend the lead to 21-0.
Mays finished with 77 yards on just seven carries. Dennis added 59 yards on six carries.
The Bears put the game away early in the fourth quarter with a 41-yard touchdown pass from Gutierrez to David Mariano. On second-and-inches, Scheidt called a play-action pass and Mariano was all alone down the center of the field for the score.
Gutierrez completed 9 of 14 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bears defense got into the scoring act when linebacker Brandon Yaley dislodged the ball from Atwater quarterback Andrew Avila on a sack and Merced defensive tackle Xavier Chambers picked up the ball and ran 11 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 34-0 lead.
Atwater scored on the final play of the game on a 25-yard run by Izzak Hurtado.