By TED SILLANPAA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
FREMONT — St. Vincent’s Derek Murphy blocked a punt to set up a touchdown pass from Mitch Sheppard to Patrick Garcia with 65 seconds left to rally the Mustangs past California School for the Deaf, 13-12, in the North Coast Section Division 5 football semifinals on Saturday.
The third-seeded Mustangs (10-2) advance to the championship game on the road next week against top-seeded Ferndale. The Eagles, who led the game until the final 1:05, finish the season 10-2.
A scoreless, mistake-filled second half was grinding to a conclusion when Carlos Lopez went into punt position for CSD with 3:57 to go. Murphy raced untouched to block the punt. The Eagles recovered, but St. Vincent took over on downs at CSD’s 30-yard line.
“The offensive lineman in front of me shot to the inside, so I had a clear run at the punter,” Murphy said. “Nobody blocked me.”
Murphy, the Mustangs’ star running back, didn’t have much impact on the game until he blocked the punt. Things changed for him at that point.
“Our offensive line stepped up,” said Murphy, a junior. “We told them early in the week that the game was on their shoulders. And, on the last drive, they opened holes and did a great job.”
Murphy blasted up the middle for six yards, then took an option pitch for five more. He gained seven yards between two big blocks from Gio Gonzalez and Alexander Jacarro with 1:58 to go and the clock running. He was hit in the backfield on the next play, but twisted forward for a first down at the CSD 9.
“I always had confidence in our offense,” said St. Vincent senior linebacker Michael Carroll. “I didn’t know how we’d score, but I knew we’d score. It might be a touchdown pass or a run or a fake field goal … but, I knew we’d score.”
Time wasn’t on Carroll’s side when the Mustangs faced third-and-goal from the Eagles’ 5 with 1:11 left.
Sheppard rolled to his right and found Garcia running a short out pattern for the game-tying touchdown.
“It’s a play that we put in to play Calistoga,” Garcia said. “We’d practiced it a few times. It worked exactly like we hoped.”
Sheppard kicked the extra point to give St. Vincent a 13-12 lead with 1:05 left.
“Our offensive line did a great job on the touchdown pass,” Sheppard said. “It worked perfectly. I had time to throw and Patrick ran a perfect pass route.”
The Eagles started their last, desperate drive at their own 40-yard line. A long pass was intercepted by the Mustangs’ Jack Richardson on first down to clinch the victory.
The game started under gray skies in the rain. When CSD running back Brian Freeman sandwiched touchdown runs of 54 and 42 yards around a short scoring burst by Murphy, it appeared St. Vincent was playing under a dark cloud, even when the rain stopped.
“I got so tired of the penalties and turnovers and other mistakes,” Carroll said. “I was fed up at halftime with the big plays. That first half made us mad. I think there was a change in our mentality in the second half.”
Even though the sun broke through just as the third quarter began, the Mustangs continued to have drives stalled by penalties. They recovered three fumbles but couldn’t score.
Carroll recovered a fumbled snap at the Eagles’ 24-yard line that gave the Mustangs a chance to tie or take the lead with 6:07 left in the third quarter. After Murphy gained 16 yards on four carries to help get the ball inside the CSD 5, it appeared the Mustangs would finally capitalize on a turnover and get into the end zone.
Things didn’t work out that way.
Two illegal procedure penalties and a holding call on what appeared to be a touchdown run pushed the Mustangs back to the CSD 15. Linebacker Connor Baer knocked down a Sheppard pass, then sacked the quarterback to make it fourth-and-goal from the Eagles 26.
Lopez intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it 64 yards. Just when it appeared St. Vincent was going to tie or lead, the interception left CSD on the verge of a score that could’ve put the game away with time running out in the third quarter.
“I’ll admit that I started to wonder if we had it in us to win today,” Murphy said. “When we got first-and-goal and wound up back at the 25 or whatever, then turned the ball over … I just thought it might not be our day.”
The slow climb back to win the game began when things looked most bleak, however. Richardson recovered a fumble three plays after the long interception return that had the Mustangs questioning their fate.
The Eagles made plenty of their own mistakes, one that kept the Mustangs in the game even before Murphy’s blocked punt.
Sheppard intercepted a pass and returned it 44 yards. He then hooked up with Garcia on consecutive completions on simple slant patterns. While they didn’t win the game, the interception and 31 yards gained on two completions finally got the Mustangs in gear.
“The slant always works,” Sheppard said. “They’ve worked all year. I was confident we’d find a way to win.”
Murphy’s block of the punt opened the door and the Mustangs swarmed to victory and an encounter with perennial small-school power Ferndale next week.
“I’m not sure it’s hit me yet,” Murphy said of the berth in the championship game. “This was a tough game. And, honestly, there were times this season that I wasn’t sure we’d even make the playoffs. I’m happy. I just need time for it to sink in that we’re in the championship game.”