ALEDO – Throughout Saturday’s Class 2A first-round playoff game, the Morrison Mustangs showed they still possessed the heart of a champion.
But while the seventh-seeded Mustangs had the heart and the will to compete, it was undefeated and second-seeded Mercer County making the clutch plays to fend off the defending 2A state football champions for a 25-14 victory.
“We were challenging to continue to go and go and go,” said Morrison coach Cory Bielema, whose club bows out at 6-4 with the program’s first opening-round loss since 2004. “We weren’t the deepest of teams to begin with, and we had some people dinged up, but the guys we had responded. We just couldn’t pull it off.”
After Mercer County (10-0) went 79 yards on six plays on the game’s first series to go up 7-0 on quarterback Tanner Matlick’s 2-yard sneak, the Mustangs struck right back with a big play.
On a fourth-and-1 from the Eagles’ 35-yard line, quarterback Matt Wilkens faked a handoff and dropped back. He found Danny Willis all alone for a touchdown. Alexander Volckmann’s extra-point kick made it 7-7.
Willis played strong in his prep finale, accumulating 83 of his 130 total yards on the ground. Wilkens was 9-for-18 passing for 108 yards, and fellow senior back Brock Deter added 79 hard-earned yards on 20 carries.
“I thought our offense did all right,” said Bielema. “We were able to move the ball in chunks, and move the chains. We did that on our first drive, and we were able to continue to do that throughout the game.”
Early in the second quarter, Morrison seemed primed for a drive-stopping play. After Matlick (15-for-23 passing, 239 yards, one TD) drove Mercer County down to the Mustangs’ 17, his pass toward the end zone was slightly underthrown, and appeared bound for defensive back Ryan Mayberry.
But senior wideout Payton Holmes took the ball right out of Mayberry’s hands for a touchdown, giving the hosts a 13-7 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“He definitely had the ball,” said Holmes. “We caught it at the same time, but I was able to rip it out of his hands. That was big for our team, and it got the crowd on our side and ruined their momentum.”
“That was a great play by Payton,” added Matlick. “I thought I’d thrown a pick, but he’s a great athlete. He makes those type of plays all the time.”
After an exchange of turnovers, Wilkens threw an errant pass that was picked off by the Golden Eagles’ Zach Nelson. Mercer County turned the pick into points, with Matlick scoring from 3 yards out to put the hosts up 19-7 at halftime.
“We thought we made the momentum in our favor, and we tried to capitalize with a quick strike,” said Bielema. “But Mercer County played it well. They’re a fine team. A lot of the mistakes we made were due to some good play by Mercer County’s players.”
Still, the Mustangs wouldn’t go away quietly. With 2:39 left in the third quarter, Deter crashed across from the 1-yard line and Willis booted the PAT to close the gap to 19-14 and give the ‘Stangs new life.
Unfortunately, that was as close as Morrison got, as Nelson added a fourth-quarter TD run, and the Mustangs’ last drive ended with an interception in the end zone with 48 seconds left in the game.
“We established ourselves again in the third quarter, and all we needed was one more drive,” said Bielema. “We just couldn’t do it.”