Nixon-Smiley head football coach and AD Troy Moses knew when he scheduled Three Rivers for the home opener, his team would be in for a battle that would require playing tough for all 48 minutes.
The Mustangs (1-1) were in a position to win Friday, Sept. 2, when they scored with just 2:15 left in the game. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs (2-0) answered quickly with a late TD pass and then sealed the win with an interception return for another score to claim a 31-20 win over Nixon-Smiley at Mustang Stadium.
“Our kids battled and that’s all we can ask for,” Moses said. “We preach there is a process to be successful. I think we took a big step forward against a really good football team. I think we’re going to learn a lot more from tonight than I think we could have if we played somebody and beat them by 50.
“(Three Rivers) has some very good athletes and we battled them and we had our opportunities, but we just let it slip by in the end,” Moses added.
While Class 3A Division II Nixon-Smiley is a larger high school in terms of population than Three Rivers (284 students to 191), the Bulldogs were a playoff team in Class 2A Division I and have had more recent postseason success than the Mustangs, who last appeared in the playoffs in 2019.
Three Rivers defeated Nixon-Smiley, 25-12, in 2021, and 27-21 in 2020. The Mustangs last beat the Bulldogs in 2017.
On Friday night, it first appeared like Nixon-Smiley was battling nerves as much as Three Rivers. The Mustangs were able to get a first down behind runs by Aiden Flores, George Rodriguez and Bradyn Martinez, but on third and eight from midfield, quarterback Luke Moses went back to pass and was sacked by Kaiyden Inman, who would also recover the ball at the Mustang 42.
Five plays later, Inman scored on a 16-yard TD run with 6:07 left in the first quarter and a successful PAT made it 7-0 in favor of the Bulldogs.
Faced with a third and 13 at the 36 on the ensuing drive, Moses tossed a short pass to Martinez, who scampered 30 yards to the Three Rivers 34. Runs by Rodriguez, Flores and Martinez powered the ball to the 2 and on the first play of the second quarter, Rodriguez scored on a two-yard rush and then added a two-point conversion to give Nixon-Smiley an 8-7 lead with 11:54 left in the first half.
A bad snap to the quarterback hurt Three Rivers and a holding penalty which wiped out a 23-yard gain put the Bullogs into an eventual punt. Starting at their own 31, the Mustangs would put together six runs totaling 30 yards before Martinez broke free on a 39-yard TD run with 5:26 to play in the half. The two-point conversion pass was caught, but out of the end zone, and that made the score 14-7.
Three Rivers would put together a 13-play drive, but Nixon-Smiley’s defense would stiffen up at their own 30, forcing three straight incompletions and a turnover on downs late in the first half before running out the clock to take a 14-7 lead into the locker room.
In the second half, both teams drove into the other’s territory, but wound up turning the ball over on downs for their first possessions. Three Rivers would start on their own 26 on their second possession of the half and mix it up through the air and on the ground for nine plays before quarterback Caden Soliz hit wide receiver Derek Lancaster with a 20-yard TD pass with 9.6 seconds left in the third quarter. The Bulldogs also ran in the two-point conversion to take a 15-14 lead into the final frame.
Nixon-Smiley got a 31-yard run from Aiden Flores to take the ball deep into Three Rivers’ side of the field, but the Mustangs were stopped on fourth down and turned the ball back over to the Bulldogs.
Three Rivers later would try a fake punt on fourth down, but the Mustangs were ready for it and stopped it, giving them the ball at their own 45 with 5:24 to play. Nixon-Smiley put together a 55-yard drive that took 3:08 off the clock, capped by a 26-yard TD run by Rodriguez, who came back from being injured earlier in the evening. The two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, but Nixon-Smiley had a 20-15 lead with just 2:15 to play in the game.
Three Rivers took over the ball on their own 43 and needed just three plays to find paydirt. Soliz again connected with Lancaster, this time on a short hitch route and Lancaster broke tackles and scored 41 yards later. Another two-point conversion made the score 23-20 in favor of the Bulldogs with just 1:39 to play.
Nixon-Smiley got the ball at their own 45 after fielding a short kickoff and managed a first down to the Three Rivers 45. But their hopes at a possible comeback win were dashed when Moses overthrew his receivers and Lancaster picked the ball off at the 25 and returned it 75 yards for a dagger-in-the-heart TD with 42.7 seconds left. The Bulldogs converted another two-point conversion to make it 31-20.
“It’s early in the season so that has something to do with it,” Coach Moses said of his team’s late defensive slide. “We’re not 100 percent in game shape yet. We’re getting there.”
Flores led the Mustangs with 89 yards on 16 carries, while Rodriguez had 73 yards on 13 carries and two TDs and Martinez had 65 yards on 14 carries with a TD. Moses was two-of-eight passing the ball for 40 yards and the one interception while also rushing three times for five yards with a lost fumble.
On the Three Rivers side, Inman ran 15 times for 102 yards and TD, while Soliz had nine carries for 49 yards and Jacob Amaro had five carries for 31 yards. Soliz was 7-of-13 for 127 yards and two TDs, while Lancaster caught six passes for 108 yards and two scores.
The Mustangs have no time to reflect on what might have been as they have Flatonia coming to town on Friday, Sept. 9. Flatonia beat Shiner St. Paul on the road in game 1, 35-0, but lost to Hallettsville, 35-14, at home on Sept. 2. The Flatonia Bulldogs are picked to make the playoffs in their district, which includes Hearne, Thorndale, Holland and Schulenburg.
“Flatonia is a Top 25 team in Class 2A and some might have them in the Top 15 or Top 10,” Moses said. “They’ve got good athletes. It’s going to be another good battle, but I’m confident in our team and the way we’re playing. Success and winning is a process we have to do.”