When the dust cleared Friday night, a team finally sat atop the North Central League I standings and it wasn’t the preseason favorite.
The visiting Middletown Mustangs separated themselves from the league pack in convincing fashion, handing St. Helena its second consecutive loss, 20-6, at Bob Patterson Memorial Field.
At 4-0, Middletown is in the driver’s seat while the Saints (5-2, 2-2 NCL I), who were held to season lows in every offensive category, were all but eliminated from league-title contention.
St. Helena, which entered the tilt averaging over 40 points and around 400 yards per game, looked remarkably human against a team it hadn’t beaten since 2015. The Saints gained only 139 yards of offense, with sophomore Ivan Robledo accounting for 90 of those on 22 rushing attempts.
He was also the only Saint to find the end zone, scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter. That play capped just the third St. Helena drive of the game after the first two stalled and resulted in punts. In between those empty possessions, Middletown had jumped out to a 14-0 lead before Robledo’s score made it 14-6 at halftime.
While St. Helena struggled to move the ball against a strong Middletown defensive front, the visitors found ways to stay on the field and extend drives. They got their first score on a 29-yard touchdown run from running back Nico Barrio on a fourth and two play to cap their first possession of the game and then found the endzone again on their second drive when quarterback Isaac Perez found Justin Urbina for a 20-yard score.
The Saints finally got on the board with Robledo’s run but that was the lone offensive highlight of the evening for the hosts. The big plays and long runs that had been hallmarks of their season thus far were stifled time and time again by the Middletown front. St. Helena had only three plays net double-digits yards, the longest of which was an 18-yard run from Robledo.
“They’re always that way,” St. Helena head coach Brandon Farrell said of the Mustangs. “We get tired of getting beat by them but they’re not out here trying to lose. They did a great job, just attacked us at the mesh point. We had the line of scrimmage won a couple times but they were able to come down on the veer much quicker than other teams had been doing.”
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While it was the Mustangs’ defense that stole the show on Friday, St. Helena’s more than held its own. After a 61-yard run from Dillon Tingle, the longest play of the game, put Middletown right at the Saints’ goal line near the end of the third quarter, they held firm and forced a turnover on downs at their own two-yard line. Plays like that helped inject some energy and optimism back into St. Helena on a night where those two things seemed to be at a premium.
The 20 points were also the fewest Middletown has scored in a win this season and the second-fewest it’s had in a game since it lost 33-13 to Napa in the season opener.
“Those are good things,” Farrell said. “Henry Dixon played an outstanding game and we had some outstanding individual efforts. That team moved the ball against just about everybody pretty consistently in big chunks and we made them fight for every point they got. We just didn’t get them off the field in the first quarter. … We just didn’t make enough plays and they made a lot more than us.”
Middletown put the game away on Perez’s second passing touchdown of the night, a 6-yard fade to Barrio that made it 20-6 with 7:16 left in the game. Perez and Barrio were the Mustangs’ two standouts offensively, with the former completing 9 of 12 passes for 115 yards with two scores, while the latter ran for 185 yards on 30 carries with a rushing and receiving touchdown.
Aside from Robledo’s 90 yards, St. Helena quarterback Daniel Martinez gained only 16 rushing yards on 8 carries and completed 4 of 8 passes for 33 yards but was intercepted on their last drive of the game. Senior running back Cody DiTomaso was once again hampered by injury and did not have a carry in the game but had two receptions for 11 yards. He exited in the second half after reaggravating a nagging injury that has limited his production over the Saints last several games.
Farrell recognized that the Saints, who have been incredibly reliant on the rushing game this season, simply didn’t have enough counters in place to combat what Middletown was doing defensively.
“It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword, we’re attacking with one side and everything looks real good and then somebody comes out and stops this and then we realize that we don’t have enough offensively to counter somebody that’s going to stop what we do,” he said. “I’ll take a lot of the blame for that and just move on to next week.”
At 5-2 on the season, St. Helena is still likely bound for the playoffs but now needs to finish the regular season strong if it wants a chance at hosting a playoff game. The Saints will look to get back on track next week with a road trip to Fort Bragg (1-5, 1-3) which lost 36-14 to Clear Lake on Friday and is currently last in league.