Victory tasted sweet indeed for the Tabor College football team Saturday. The Bluejays bounced back from a heartbreaker against Ottawa a week earlier to beat Kansas Wesleyan, the 20th-ranked team in the NAIA, 56-31.
“I think that might have been the best game we played, offensively, in a long time,” coach Mike Gardner said.
The loss dropped the Coyotes to 4-1 in conference play while Tabor improved to 3-1 in the KCAC and 4-2 overall.
KWU jumped to a 3-0 lead with a field goal midway through the first quarter. But the Bluejays drove 71 yards and scored on a touchdown dive by quarterback Simon McKee with five minutes left in the period. Joe Cannon’s kick made it 7-3.
A minute later, defensive end Chris Sanborn intercepted a Wesleyan pass at the 29-yard line, but failed to convert a field-goal attempt.
No problem. Moments later, defensive back Anthony Daniel recovered a KWU fumble on the Coyote 28-yard line.
As the second quarter began, the Bluejays’ James Monroe Jr. ran in from one yard out to give Tabor a 14-3 margin.
Wesleyan then orchestrated a 71-yard scoring drive, capped by a 21-yard pass to Zach McClain from Trey Dallas with 11:45 left in the half.
Tabor responded with a 71-yard drive of its own. McKee finished it with a seven-yard touchdown run to give the Jays a 21-10 lead after the PAT kick.
The Bluejays scored once more before halftime, helped by a Coyote penalty on fourth down that kept the drive alive. Monroe dashed in from 11 yards out for a 28-10 lead with 3:36 remaining.
An interception by linebacker Ben Gardner on a pass tipped by Sanborn helped preserve the 18-point lead at intermission.
This week, the Bluejays didn’t let up in the second half. Tabor pounded away at the KWU defense with its ground attack, setting up a 13-yard scoring run by Monroe for a 35-10 lead.
Later, an interception by JP DeJesus set up a six-yard Tabor touchdown pass from McKee to freshman Darian Polk for a 42-10 bulge with just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Kansas Wesleyan responded with two scores—a 26-yard pass to McClain and a nine-yard run by quarterback Dallas after the Coyotes blocked a Tabor punt.
With Tabor leading 42-33, running back Brandon Johnson scored for the Bluejays from three yards away to boost the margin to 49-23.
The Coyotes scored again on their next possession, but Tabor added one more score. Monroe lost his helmet, but dove into the end zone from four yards out for the 25-point victory margin.
Monroe, who finished with 205 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 32 carries, earned All-KCAC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Gardner was named Defensive Player of the Week for his interception plus nine tackles.
“James Monroe is a great player, but he’s an even better person,” coach Gardner said. “I have guys on both sides of the ball—Terach Antoine is another one—that you’d never know they have a heart for people and children like they do, if you didn’t get to know them.
“That’s the thing that has made this team so special.”
Gardner said reducing the turnovers that plagued Tabor last year while grabbing 14 interceptions and 14 fumbles so far this season has been key to his team’s turnaround in 2012.
The Tabor coach is still looking for more consistency.
“I want to see us be more consistent with not giving up explosive plays on defense, and we have to be more consistent on the dadgum special teams,” he said, adding that the team is still committing too many penalties.
“Those things hurt us.”
That said, Tabor’s success has surprised a lot of observers.
“The hardest thing about success is how to handle it—as an individual, as a team, as a coach,” Gardner said.
“The tragedies we’ve gone through this year, on and off the field, have really made this group more resilient and I really think they’re appreciating the success.
“We need to just not be so full of ourselves that we forget that it took a long time to get to where we are now, and we need to not be complacent and satisfied with where we are, because we still have improvements to make.”
Coming—Tabor will travel to Lindsborg Saturday for a conference game with Bethany College (1-3 in KCAC, 2-4 overall).
“We just need to take the momentum we’ve got right now and keep going, because this Bethany team is going to be very good,” coach Mike Gardner said.
“They might not be having the year they want right now, but they are a good football team and are well-coached.”
Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.