Mustangs stumble at Ft. Sam after slow start

The Natalia Mustangs struck first at Ft. Sam last Friday night before watching Cole reel off three straight touchdowns to put Natalia’s back against the wall. Natalia was able to rally in the second half to take the lead, before giving up a huge touchdown play with 1:53 to go in the game which turned out to be the difference in a 26-24 set-back as Natalia fell to 1-1 on the season.
“I thought our kids played well enough to win, but Cole made more plays than we did,” Natalia Head Coach Ilyan Martinez said. “Credit to their kids and their coaches, but I was proud of how our kids handled themselves after falling behind early.”
Things did start well for Natalia. Cole received to start the game, as Josh Legaspe returned the ball just two yards before Natalia’s Jaiden Burford was able to recover a Cole fumble. One play later, Burford ran in from 11 yards out to give the Natalia Mustangs a 6-0 lead after the two-point try failed.
Both teams would swap possessions on the ensuing plays before Cole took their third drive of the game and struck on play #2. Their shift and talented QB Walker Cunningham was able to break loose for a 62 yard run with 6:53 to go in the opening quarter. The PAT failed, as the game was tied 6-6.
Cole was able to take the lead with 9:33 to go in the second quarter, as the Cougars capped off a four play, 56 yard drive on a Micah Will 24 yard run. The PAT was good, as the Cougars surged ahead 13-6.
The Cougars added one more touchdown before the half, as they used a 14 play drive that stretched 71 yards before Will found the end-zone on a 2-yard run. The PAT was good, as the Cougars led 20-6 at the half.
Natalia received to start the second half of play, as two starters who were unavailable in the first half due to penalties from Jourdanton rejoined the team. Unfortunately, Natalia stalled out on their first drive of the second half.
Cole got the ball with 10:28 to go in the 3rd quarter and on their first play of the drive, Natalia was able to force a fumble recovered by Gaylen Garcia. Natalia took over at the Cole 23 yard line. Natalia used 7-plays to march down the short field before Ryan Rizo found Gabriel Perez on a 6-yard strike over the middle with 7:35 to go. Unfortunately, the two point try failed again as Natalia trailed 20-12.
On the ensuing kickoff, Natalia was able to force yet another turnover as Christopher Saldana came up with the fumble for Natalia. Two plays later on the short-field, Natalia’s Ryan Rizo found David Silva for a 20 yard touchdown play pulling Natalia within 20-18 as the two point try failed.
The Natalia Mustangs continued to play good defense in the second half, which afforded them the chance to surge ahead with 11:54 to go in the game. Elijah Banda was able to bull his way in from 1 yard out to give Natalia a 24-20 lead capping off a 14-play, 80 yard drive.
On the ensuing drive, Cole began their drive at the Natalia 40 and made it down to the Natalia 7-yard line where the Natalia defense came up with a huge goal-line stop.
Natalia was unable to put the ball away on the next drive, which allowed the Cougars to get the ball back with 4:31 to go at their own 39 yard line. Two plays later, Cole fumbled yet again as Natalia took over at their own 37 yard line with 3:57 to go. Unfortunately, once again, Natalia was unable to sustain a drive to run out the clock, as the Stangs were forced to punt with 2:07 to go.
Cole started their drive at their own 18 yard line with 1:53 to go. QB Walker Cunningham took a snap just after a Cole lineman jumped off the line as no flags were thrown. He launched a long ball to Anthony Mason as two Natalia defenders were unable to take down the Cougar who raced 82 yards in for a gut-punch of a touchdown. The PAT was blocked, but Cole had regained the lead 26-24.
Natalia got the ball back at the Cole 45, but stalled out resulting in the Cougars holding on for a 26-24 win.
“We have to do a better job of closing out games and that starts with me managing the game better,” Coach Martinez said.
Martinez was asked what slowed down Natalia in the first half. “We struggled to get the run game going,” Martinez said. “That is the staple of our offense and when we can’t do that efficiently, we will struggle offensively. Everything we do starts up front and that will be our focus this week.”
Natalia finished the game with 257 yards of offense, although they had just over 70 at the half. Natalia used 65 plays and it included 177 yards of passing as Ryan Rizo was 20-30-2TDs. Natalia rushed 35 times for just 80 yards.
“Defensively, I felt like we played well most of the night and they kept us in the game with some big turnovers,” Martinez said. “We have to continue to work on limiting big plays and finding ways to close out games.”
Cole finished with 386 yards of offense which included a total of 45 plays. Cole passed for 165 and rushed for 221. Natalia did have 0 turnovers as they forced 4 turnovers by the Cougars, Natalia did finish with 16 1st downs compared to 15 by Cole.
Martinez was asked his thoughts on struggles in the Special teams aspect of the game.
“Our two kickers are injured right now and when you have a 50/50 shot on a kick, I liked our offenses’ chances for punching it in,” Martinez said. “We just couldn’t get over that hump and credit Cole for playing us tough with our backs against the wall.
Individual stat leaders: Rizo finished 20-30-177-2TDs. Silva led receiving with 5-73-1TD as Perez was 6-40-1TD. Rushing, Banda led 13-43-1TD and Burford 12-29-1TD.
Defensive Stat Leaders: Assists- Saldana 7, Paul Zapata 2, Josh San Miguel 2, Gabriel Perez 2, Gaylen Garcia 2. Solo tackles- Perez 10, Saldana 6, Garcia 5, Burford 2.
Stangs respond to adversity: Prior to the football game, the Natalia QB had received bad news about a relative of his dying in a terrible accident in Devine prior to the game. He still strapped on his helmet and went out and battled his tail off which didn’t’ go unnoticed.
“A lot of guts for our QB to go out and play after getting bad news,” Martinez said. “I thought our team rallied around him and gave their best effort. We learned a lot about ourselves and we will continue to work hard.”
Natalia will return to action Friday night at home vs. the Randolph Ro-Hawks. See the preview story for more details.
By Eric Smith
Staff Writer