For the second straight week, Sweetwater’s offense had a monster, clock-eating scoring drive when the Mustangs opened their season Friday against the Vernon Lions.
Sweetwater took 18 plays to go 69 yards, leading to Ryan Linebaugh’s 1-yard touchdown run with 11:13 left in the second quarter that put his team up 7-0.
But, with the exception of another great showing by the Mustangs’ new kicker, Tadeo Canon-Masjoan, the offensive highlights after that were few. That meant Sweetwater’s defense had to step up to the challenge, and did it ever.
The Mustangs denied a Vernon drive right before halftime to protect the 7-0 lead. Then, after cashing in on a 32-yard field goal by Canon-Masjoan in the third period, Sweetwater nailed down a gritty 10-0 victory with some old-fashioned “Big Red” defense in the fourth quarter. Vernon was denied twice inside the 10-yard line — first when Linebaugh recovered a fumble at Sweetwater’s 7, and later when Vernon was stuffed for no gain on a fourth-and-three run at the 3-yard line with 3:47 left.
Linebaugh then ran the ball four straight times for 20 yards, forcing Vernon to use up its timeouts and nailing down the victory.
But the story was Sweet-water’s defense, which shut out an opponent for the first time in Craig Slaughter’s three-year tenure. While forcing just one turnover, the Mustangs were able to make just about every big play when it really mattered, especially during the fourth period. The final defensive stand also featured a 10-yard sack of Vernon QB Parker Johnson by Sweet-water lineman Josh Larue on second-and-goal after the Lions reached the 4.
“The kids came up and made the plays when the time was right,” said defen-sive coordinator Clint Eas-ley. “That showed a lot of poise. I’m proud of them.”
As for Sweetwater’s of-fense, it did enough to win and might have put up more points with better field po-sition. The Mustangs had to start from behind their own 20 on four possessions, including their last three when they began from the 17, 7 and 3-yard lines.
But when there was room to operate, Sweetwater took advantage, especially on the team’s remarkable 18-play scoring drive and also after taking over near midfield when Vernon failed on a fourth-down pass early in the third quarter.
A pair of first-down runs by quarterback Taylor Jones advanced the Mustangs to the Lions’ 15, where Canon-Masjoan — a move-in from Argentina who joined the team shortly before its first scrimmage — again showed off his strong leg by connec-ting from 32 yards out.Earlier, his extra point had put the cap on the 18-play drive that began at Vernon’s 31 midway through the first quarter and ate up over seven minutes.
It appeared Sweetwater would score on its opening possession after moving from its 28 to Vernon’s 9, but Jones was intercepted in the end zone. The Mus-tangs responded by forcing a quick three-and-out, how-ever, and then scored to go ahead 7-0. The defense then stopped two more potential scoring drives by Vernon in the first half, with a Line-baugh sack blunting the first one and the second one — which reached the 12 — also coming up short after a sack by Sweetwater defensive end Luis Gaxiola and an incomplete pass in the end zone on the final play before intermission.
Sweetwater had 163 of its 251 total yards in the first half. Jones ran for a team-high 79 yards and threw for 44, while Sean Morrow had a 38-yard pass completion to Kaleb Hoover on the first play of the game that immediately put the Mustangs into Vernon territory.
Linebaugh was called on to do most of the running and finished with 55 yards on 22 carries. He had five first-down runs on the long scoring drive, including the 1-yard TD that came on fourth-and-goal after Jones was stopped just short of the end zone on a 6-yard quarterback keeper.
There were a number of individual defensive stars as well. Linebaugh and Larue each had five solo tackles and Sam Nemir six. Lare and Nemir each had three tackles for a loss and Larue was credited with two sacks, while Linebaugh, Gaxiola and Mateo Gonzales also had sacks against Vernon. Nemir and Alex Garcia were both in on 10 tackles and Linebaugh nine.
Sweetwater is back home this Friday when it hosts the Sammy Baugh Classic. The Mustangs face Monahans (1-0), which edged Snyder in its opener, at 7:30 p.m.