ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DALE BRUBACHER
One fourth-down play in the third quarter of a 42-7 football game wouldn’t appear to be a crucial moment in any contest.
But the success of Southwestern College on just that one play largely ensured the doom of Tabor College in the Bluejay’s homecoming game Saturday.
Southwestern had tallied 21 points in the first quarter as Tabor battled a fierce north wind and a stiff Moundbuilder defense.
Southwestern fullback Tony Daniels opened the scoring on a two-yard run at 9:58 of the first quarter. Dustin Hamilton kicked the extra point.
Tabor quarterback Matt Insley was intercepted two plays later and Southwestern tallied again on its first play, a Wiley Jackson six-yard run.
The Moundbuilders concluded the first half scoring with 1:50 left in the first quarter with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Eric Michael to Montelle Knauls.
Neither team could mount a scoring drive in the second quarter.
The Tabor defense recovered a fumble to stop Southwestern on the first possession of the third quarter. Shaun Craft, however, subbing for the injured Insley, lost the ball on Tabor’s first play. It was the only offensive snap the Bluejays had in the third quarter.
Nevertheless, Tabor appeared to have shifted the momentum when, on the Moundbuilders’ next possession, Richard Wingate blocked a Southwestern punt and returned it 30 yards for the touchdown. Dylan Pohlman’s extra point made the score 21-7 with 9:28 remaining in the third quarter.
Pohlman’s kickoff drove Moundbuilder returner Joey Cantu near the end zone and, when his knee slipped down at the 2-yard line, Southwestern was suddenly beset with poor field position while facing the same cold gale that had plagued Tabor in the first quarter.
Southwestern struggled for three yards rushing in two plays before Michael wriggled free from several tacklers to come up a bit short of the first down near the 12-yard line.
In a terse statement to his offense, Moundbuilder head coach Monty Lewis dictated that his squad would attempt to convert the fourth down play deep in their own territory. Michael took the snap and struggled forward to gain the first by an inch or two.
The gutsy call seemed to turn momentum back to Southwestern’s favor. The Moundbuilders proceeded to march 17 plays for a 98-yard touchdown drive capped by a 28-yard pass from Michael to Eddie Hartfield.
Tabor misplayed the ensuing kickoff and Southwestern recovered. The Moundbuilder drive was halted, but, after the team’s switched ends for the fourth quarter, Eric Huebert’s punt trapped the Bluejays at the 1-yard line.
A Tyler Marsh fumble on the first play from scrimmage gave Southwestern the ball on the 3-yard line and Michael ran the touchdown in two plays later.
A fumbled exchange on the first play of Tabor’s next possession turned the ball over to the Moundbuilders on the 16-yard line and, again in two plays, Southwestern scored, this time on a Michael to D.J. Bell two-yard pass. Hamilton’s kick concluded the scoring at the 11:37 mark.
In the second half until that point, Tabor’s offense ran three offensive plays and lost the ball on all three.
“The mistakes killed us,” said Tabor head coach Tim McCarty. He was, however, positive about some of the things he saw in the game.
“The defense played great,” he said. “We put our best athletes on that side of the ball. But when you don’t have age, you make mistakes.”
The offense also had moments of success, particularly when they adopted a deep shotgun formation that flooded the field with pass receivers. Craft used the unusual set to complete 10 passes for 100 yards.
Nathan Funk led the receivers with two catches for 47 yards. Preston Neufeld grabbed five balls for 44 yards.
The Bluejay rushing game was held to -46 yards. The rushing statistics were also hurt by Southwestern’s five sacks of Tabor quarterbacks.
“Our kids are going through the fire right now,” McCarty said. “It’s a big character check. You walk off the field disappointed, but you also walk off excited because you know what’s coming.”
The 1-4 Bluejays journey to Sterling Saturday for an afternoon matchup. Game time is 1:30 p.m.