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story.lead_photo.caption California senior Rick Worthey helps anchor an otherwise young Pintos defensive line this season. Photo by Carter Mulvihill / News Tribune.

CALIFORNIA, Mo. — When the California Pintos host the Eldon Mustangs tonight, it will be a matchup of 1-3 teams. In recent seasons, that sentence would likely cause a double-take.

It's true recent history has seen much higher-profile matchups between the Pintos and the Mustangs. However, the reality is that the loser of tonight's game will be well behind the eight ball in the Tri-County Conference race.

For California, the early stretch of this season was always going to be brutal, thanks to non-conference games against Class 3 powers Monett and Mexico. The Pintos had every chance to bounce back to 2-2 last week in Versailles, but offensive miscues undid them on countless occasions.

Eldon will give California no sympathies when it comes to strength of schedule. The Mustangs have opened Tri-County play with losses to Southern Boone and Blair Oaks, both of which remain 4-0 heading into tonight.

Through four weeks, California's rushing attack has improved each game. Quarterback Jacob Wolken leads all the team with 381 yards on the year, 150 of which came last week at Versailles. The junior has posted back-to-back 100-yard games entering tonight.

A slew of early injuries paved the way for Cory Friedmeyer to step in as a running-mate to Wolken, and the junior has taken full advantage of his carries. Friedmeyer has 223 yards and a touchdown despite not getting the ball much until Week 3.

For all of California's yards the past two games, it hasn't always translated into points, most notably in last week's 14-10 loss to the Tigers. Leaving points on the field won't be an option for the Pintos if they want to hang with an explosive Mustang offense that will run the wing-T for the majority of its sets.

"Eldon is more of a run team than a pass team," California coach Marty Albertson said. " If they can run the ball, that's what they'll do. Hopefully we can shut down the run and make them pass the ball."

Senior quarterback Austin Kempker will be handing the ball off to Isaiah Parsons and Isaiah Merida plenty tonight, though the Mustangs figure to let Kempker take a few shots downfield if the situation calls for it. The Pintos secondary has gone largely untested through the air so far this season.

"(Kempker) is a pretty good athlete," Albertson said. "We definitely have to contain him and keep him inside and hopefully don't let him roll out. If he rolls out and gets time, that's when he finds open receivers."

The pair of Isaiahs will be running behind an offensive line that will have a size advantage. California's key to combat the size mismatch may be in its timing of the snap count. The Pintos defensive line consistently beat Versailles off the ball last week.

"Eldon likes the power sweep where they pull both guards," Albertson said. "We have to be able to follow those guards when they pull and have pursuit and shut it off from the inside. Hopefully we'll have good containment and have our linemen help make the tackle."

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California's tough start to the season has been partly defined by injuries. Last week, the Pintos had 10 players on the shelf, though things may be looking up health-wise as senior Gunner Baquet should be back in the fold tonight.

A starter on both sides of the ball entering the season, Baquet broke a finger in Week 1, had surgery and has missed the last three games. A bulky cast on his right hand won't allow him to contribute at running back, but Baquet will help out defensively as a linebacker.

While the Pintos will have the benefit of playing in front of a raucous home crowd with tonight being their Homecoming, California coaches have had the added chore this week of keeping the players focused amid a week where there are plenty of distractions.

"Homecoming is a big event for the kids, but most coaches don't like it because there's so much other stuff going on," Albertson said. "Hopefully we can keep them focused on winning the football game. To make Homecoming satisfying and a great experience, you need to win on Friday night."

The Pintos won last year's meeting 34-23 and haven't lost to the Mustangs since 2011. Eldon is looking for its first conference win of the season while California is 1-1 in Tri-County play. 

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Riley Field.

California hosts Eldon

California Pintos Football Podcast [Eldon preview, Sept. 16, 2016]

Updates on Twitter: @CDemocratSports@PintosAthletics and @EldonMustang

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