Tabor College relied on a 31-3 first half aided by turnovers, and the speedy feet of running back Nate Harrison, to hold off a Saint Mary rally in the second half for a 44-37 conference win Saturday in Leavenworth.
Harrison received KCAC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his 95-yard kickoff return to start the second half.
“It was an exciting game for people who came and watched it,” coach Mike Gardner said. “We made really good plays in all three phases of the game.”
With their third straight win, the Bluejays are 3-1 for the season and 2-0 in the KCAC.
Tabor jumped to an early 10-0 lead on a field goal by Joe Cannon and a pass to Roger Mujica from Tim Rozzell.
The Bluejays then forced a Saint Mary fumble at the Tabor 18-yard line with 49 seconds left in the first quarter. It turned into Tabor points when quarterback Simon McKee scored on a keeper at 13:49 in the second quarter. The kick gave the Bluejays a 17-0 lead.
Later in the second quarter, Tabor fumbled the ball away on its 45-yard line. But on the next series linebacker Nik?France intercepted a pass and ran up-field. The Spires popped the ball out near midfield, but Tabor’s Terach Antoine caught the loose ball and ran all the way into the end zone for a Bluejay score with 9:20 on the clock. The kick made it 24-0.
Saint Mary turned the ball over again with under nine minutes to play. Tabor capitalized as Harrison ran in for a touchdown at 7:31 for a 31-0 margin.
The Spires drove downfield, but settled for a 35-yard field goal with one minute left in the half.
A Tabor fan said at halftime that it would take a major second-half meltdown to cause the Bluejays to lose the game. But it almost happened.
Saint Mary used the pass to move quickly down the field on its first possession and then score just two minutes into the second half to cut the deficit to 31-10.
The Bluejays responded in a big way when Harrison returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown that gave Tabor a 37-10 lead at 13:10. But Saint Mary came right back to score two minutes later to make it 37-17.
Tabor’s defense came through again, intercepting a pass in the end zone to save a Spires touchdown with just under six minutes left in the third quarter.
But Saint Mary scored with 58 seconds left to narrow Tabor’s lead to 37-23.
While the Bluejay offense struggled, Saint Mary scored once more early in the final quarter on a pass-and-run to wide receiver Ronnie Cooper. The score pulled the Spires to within 37-30 at 12:22.
Tabor put together a drive on its next possession fueled on the running of running backs Brandon Johnson and James Monroe Jr. With seven minutes left, McKee scored on the quarterback keeper, making it 44-30.
An interception by Tabor’s Daniel Krehbiel at the 25-yard line with just 5:10 left in the game helped keep Saint Mary at bay.
But in what Gardner called the most crucial play of the game, Cannon snagged a bad snap and managed to get off a long punt in traffic that pushed Saint Mary all the way back to its 16-yard line.
“That was an amazing play,” Gardner said. “I couldn’t believe what happened. That play probably salvaged the game.”
Having to travel the length of the field, Saint Mary took to the air again as time ticked away. With just 59 seconds to go, the Spires scored for the final score of 44-37.
Johnson led Tabor with 66 rushing yards while McKee added 63 and Harrison 47. Gardner highlighted Harrison’s 95-yard kickoff return, too.
“He just did a tremendous job for us returning that kickoff for a touchdown,” Gardner said. “It was huge.”
McKee completed 12 of 17 passes for 120 yards, while Rozzell added 54 yards on two completion. Wide receiver Scott Bauer led receivers with four catches for 65 yards.
The Bluejay defense got a boost with interceptions from France and Krehbiel and a forced fumble from Antoine.
“I thought our defense played outstanding in the first half and had times in the second half,” Gardner said. “They came up with some really huge plays when we needed them.”
Defensive end Cody Godshall registered nine solo tackles and four assists, and JoJo Galvez added seven solos and four assists.
“We have to take this game for what it is—a win,” Gardner said. “I really care about these kids a lot and they need to just really focus on finishing.”
Coming—Tabor will take its 3-1 record into Saturday’s home game with Ottawa (1-2, 1-1). Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.