Mustangs pick up first win of the season

The proverbial monkey is off the back of Eldon.

After a rough 0-5 stretch to start the season that left the Mustangs still searching for that first win, Eldon decided Homecoming night would be a good time to change the narrative with a 44-36 win over California. When the clock hit zero, players could smile for a change and did not hesitate to do so as they celebrated with hugs and shoulder bumps after a hard-fought victory.

“Coaches have been saying keep going and be 1-0 each week,” Eldon sophomore quarterback Dallas Hardy said of the mindset to get through the early-season struggles.

“We’ve been going against tough teams, you know, and we’ve been grinding and grinding every week. This feels good, we’ve been working real hard for this.”

Well, it certainly seemed to show on the field as Eldon got off to a solid start finding the end zone on the team’s first five offensive drives. The Mustangs were only stopped by the clock on the final drive of the first half and did not punt until the first possession of the third quarter.

“It is great for a fast start for our guys. That has been kind of a problem for us all year long is getting out to a slow start so it was good to see those guys from the get-go come out ready to play,” Eldon coach Chad Hult said.

Eldon marched right down the field on the opening possession of the night and capped a 69-yard drive on a 46-yard Hardy touchdown run up the sideline as the young sophomore breezed past Pinto defenders. A quick 2-point conversion run quickly put the Mustangs up 8-0 at the 10:14 mark of the first quarter.

After the Mustang defense forced a 3-and-out on California’s opening possession, Eldon lined right back up and marched 80 yards to the house, daring the Pintos to stop the run, and junior Braydy Hill finished it with a 6-yard touchdown run and 2-point conversion run to put his team up 16-0 just before the end of the first quarter.

California quickly responded, though, as a 53-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Calen Kruger to junior Dawson Gump set the Pintos up for a 5-yard touchdown pass on a slant to senior Clayton Winkler. Sophomore Drake Schlup added the 2-point conversion to cut the gap in half.

Unfortunately for the Pintos, Eldon’s offense continued to roll and as the Pintos secondary started to creep up anticipating more of the run, the Mustangs went to the air and Hardy found a wide open tight end in junior P.J. Bledsoe for a 41-yard score to make it 22-8 after a failed 2-point conversion. It was just one of two passes the quarterback attempted the entire game. California remained in striking distance, however, with a 6-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive from senior Logan Parish.

“We kept running that play over and over and saw that safety just drop in so perfect time for it,” Hardy said of the touchdown toss to Bledsoe. “Made the shot.”

The next Eldon touchdown drive went for 80 yards once again. After Hardy dashed for 23 yards to enter California territory, the Mustangs soon followed up with Hill’s second touchdown run of the night from three yards out. Instead of kicking the ball right back to California, the Mustangs went for an onside kick and Hardy recovered the ball on California’s 46-yard line. The effort was not in vain, either, as the sophomore field general scored his third touchdown of the night on a 41-yard run. Hill’s ensuing 2-point conversion run gave Eldon a comfortable 36-16 halftime advantage.

“I love the ‘O-Line’ man, I don’t know what I’d do without them,” said Hardy who finished with a team-leading 171 yards. “They work real hard and have improved a lot this year.”

Just when it seemed like Eldon may be on the verge of breaking away, California came out strong out of the locker rooms and put together two quick scoring drives with the legs of Kruger to cut the lead back to eight points. The quarterback dashed for a 49-yard and 18-yard score to cut the gap to 36-28.

With momentum starting to shift, Eldon put together one good last scoring drive as senior fullback Kaden Dillon ran up the middle for a 26-yard score and added the 2-point conversion. Dillon, like other ball carriers, benefited from the push up front by the offensive line as he was one of three Mustangs to cross the century mark on the ground. Dillon totaled 170 yards, Hill finished with 109 and Eldon rushed for 460 yards as a team, averaging a welcome seven yards per carry.

“Those guys are incredible. They are coming together as a group and it is fun to watch those guys grow and enjoy what they do,” Hult said of the offensive line. “They take a lot of pride in running the football so I love seeing that out of linemen.”

The Mustang defense did just enough to keep the Pintos down the rest of the way.

After Dillon previously recovered a fumble to halt California’s final drive of the first half, the defensive unit got another big stop with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter as senior Gabe Marriott stuffed a Pinto ball carrier on 4th-and-4 for a turnover on downs just 19 yards away from the end zone.

When Kruger ran in yet another score from 11 yards out with 9:05 left in the game and California cut the gap to eight, Eldon got another big stop with just over five minutes remaining as the Pintos began their drive on Eldon’s 30-yard line and went no further. It started with a 5-yard tackle for a loss from junior defensive lineman Fisher Snelling on first down and after senior defensive back Nathaniel Wardenburg broke up a 3rd-and-15 pass, the Pintos nearly got the first down on the ensuing play to keep the drive alive. However, Kruger’s pass to Schlup was bobbled as the receiver went out of bounds and California’s last chance to tie the game ended with a turnover on downs because the Mustang offense converted enough first downs to line up in victory formation.

“We don’t like to see that many points put up on the board, but they made the big plays when they had to. That is what I told the kids after the game,” Hult noted. “I was extremely proud. When those situations came up, they rose to the occasion.”

Eldon (1-5, 1-3 Tri-County Conference) will host Boonville (5-1) next week for another conference showdown at 7 p.m. For Hult and company, the goal continues to be consistent improvement by the time the Mustangs reach the playoffs in week 10 and Friday night’s win over California was a good step in that direction.

“We just have to carry it over, come in and watch film, get better from the mistakes we made and ride the momentum a little bit,” the coach said. “Momentum is a big thing for high school kids so come out and play next week like we did this week.”