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Mistakes costly in Mustangs’ loss

Marble Falls football vs. Pflugerville Connally, Aug. 25, 2023

Marble Falls senior tailback Jaime Castillo cuts to the inside against a Pflugerville Connally defender. The Mustangs lost their season opener 40-14 on Aug. 25 at home. Photo by Stennis Shotts

The Marble Falls Mustangs fell 40-14 to the Pflugerville Connally Cougars in the 2023 season opener at Mustang Stadium on Aug. 25.

Mustangs head coach Brian Herman was upset with his team’s execution.

“We did absolutely everything we could to lose that game,” he said. “Whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. I’m almost speechless.”

After several short gains by Marble Falls (District 13-4A) seniors Dominic Fierro and Jaime Castillo to start the game, sophomore running back Joaquin Aguilar broke free on his first varsity touch for a 64-yard touchdown. Senior kicker Isaac Larranaga missed the point after, and the Mustangs were up 6-0.

“We’ve got high hopes for (Aguilar),” Herman said. “He has shown some flashes of being really, really good.”

The Mustang defense stifled the Connally (District 2-5A) run game early, but it didn’t take long for the Cougars to find a new way to move the ball, relying on short passes and screens to get into the red zone.

After three measly gains, Connally rolled the dice on fourth down, but a gang of Mustang defensive linemen stormed behind the line of scrimmage to force a turnover on downs.

The Mustangs’ ensuing drive was short-lived after a miscommunication between junior quarterback Noah Luckie and Fierro led to a fumble.

Connally senior tailback Owen Garcia was able to break the ice for the Cougar offense on the following drive, showcasing his elusiveness to get the ball within the 5-yard line. But Marble Falls senior cornerback Austin Cutchin flipped the script for the Mustangs on the next play, intercepting a would-be touchdown pass toward the end of the first quarter.

The Mustangs appeared to get their legs under them in the second quarter, breaking several multi-yard gains on the ground to get inside the red zone. Action slowed as the Mustangs approached the end zone and the Cougars defense stacked the line of scrimmage.

The Cougars seemed to have an edge on the Mustangs after forcing a fourth down; however, an Aguilar sweep to the right side of the field was enough to move the sticks. The Mustangs’ momentum expired quickly following a goal-line fumble by junior tailback Kole Becker.

“We had a 17-play drive that ended on the goal line with the ball going the other way,” Herman said. “Really? We did some things that are staples of what we are supposed to do, but we found ways to open the door for a very talented team to get momentum.”

Both offenses struggled against strong defensive play in the second quarter as the teams became more comfortable with each other’s personnel and playbooks.

Connally tried to find paydirt one last time in the first half with less than a minute left after forcing a Marble Falls punt. The Cougars gained momentum with two massive pass plays and scored their first touchdown of the game on a 25-yard throw from senior quarterback Kaden Nguyen to senior wide receiver Landon Bradley.

A successful PAT gave the Cougars a 7-6 lead entering the second half.

The Cougars wasted no time putting more points on the board in the third quarter. Senior tailback Jamal Abercrumbia took a handoff 76 yards for a touchdown within the first minute. Connally then recovered an onside kick after a 15-yard penalty by the Mustangs.

On the next play, Nguyen found Garcia on a 29-yard touchdown pass to push the Cougars’ lead to 21-6.

After three consecutive scores by Connally, a trio of Marble Falls tailbacks — Castillo, Fierro, and Aguilar — showed some urgency on the next drive with a flurry of short-to-medium gains on the ground. Herman’s squad capped off a 75-yard drive with an Aguilar touchdown, and Castillo’s 2-point conversion cut the lead to 21-14.

Connally answered with a strong run by Abercrumbia for his second touchdown of the game. A low snap on the ensuing PAT put the game at 27-14 with roughly two minutes left in the third quarter.

Castillo appeared set to respond to the Cougars’ offensive fireworks, but the senior was unable to hold onto the ball during a run up the middle of the Connally defense, which led to a Cougars’ fumble recovery late in the third quarter.

“You can’t win — I don’t care who you’re playing — when you turn the ball over and have that many penalty yards,” Herman said.

Connally continued its high-octane offensive performance on the first play of the fourth quarter with a lengthy touchdown grab from Nguyen to Bradley to push the lead to 34-14.

Herman refused to let his team give up, calling a successful 24-yard pass play on third down to extend the following drive. The Mustang offense sputtered as the drive progressed and turned the ball over on downs.

The Cougars landed the final punch of the night with three minutes left in the game on a 35-yard, high-arching touchdown pass from Nguyen to sophomore wide receiver Aidin Smart, making it 40-14.

Herman and the Mustangs are on the road Sept. 1 against the Brownwood Lions at Gordon Wood Stadium, 3206 Milam Drive in Brownwood. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.

“We’ll need to do everything that we didn’t do tonight,” Herman said.