ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
A season some may remember for what could have been ended as it should have been.
Overcoming a rash of mid-season frustrations, Tabor College put together perhaps its most complete performance of the year and crushed McPherson College, 36-10, Saturday at Reimer Field.
The win over a much-improved Bulldog team, which came into the game with a 6-3 record, gave the 6-4 Bluejays their second winning record in school history and the first since 1979 when they finished 7-3.
“They just came out ready to play,” said an emotional coach Tim McCarty, who was on the receiving end of a Gatorade celebration bath in the game’s final seconds. “To be honest, we just took off everything that was hindering us so we could run the race.
“We’ve been playing scared,” he added. “Everything has been ‘we don’t want to screw up,’ and what happened was we were holding back. We refocused this week. They did a great job at practice this week and finished the game. They stayed focused for 60 minutes.”
The Bluejays scored on the opening possession of the game, starting from their 28-yard line and cashing in nine plays later when quarterback David Hernandez connected with tight end Preston Neufeld on a 39-yard scoring pass. Keenan Morris kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead with 10:21 left on the clock.
Neither team moved the ball during their next two possessions. But on Morris’s second punt for the Bluejays, Mac return man Ian Kelper fumbled the ball and Gatz Graf recovered it for Tabor at the McPherson 41.
Three plays later, Cameron Conant took the handoff from Hernandez at the 8-yard line, started up the middle, then suddenly stopped and popped a jump pass to a wide open Neufeld for the Jays’ second touchdown of the quarter. Morris’s kick raised the ante to 14-0 with 1:30 left on the clock.
But the Bluejays were far from through.
Midway into the next second quarter, Bulldog quarterback Erik Johnson connected with Omar Mireles on a nine-yard pass. But Mireles was hit hard by Jared Johnson, coughed up the football, and Jeremy Loewen recovered it for Tabor on the Bluejay 30.
The Jays gobbled up the territory quickly. A couple of big gains on the ground by Hernandez, Conant and Tyler Marsh, plus a couple of passes to Marsh, gave the Jays a first down at the Mac 26.
From there, Conant burst up the middle and dashed through the McPherson defense for the score.
Morris’s kick gave Tabor a commanding 21-0 lead with 5:21 left in the half.
A Bluejay interception by Willie Lopez on the next possession gave Tabor the ball once more at midfield. But this time McPherson held and, after Tabor punted, the Bulldogs pieced together their only sustained drive of the afternoon.
Marching from its own 10-yard line, Mac drove to the Tabor 16 before the Bluejay defense stiffened and forced the visitors to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Ziya Gunay with two seconds left in the half.
The Bulldogs did make it interesting in the early minutes of the second half, pulling to within 21-10 on a nine-play, 47-yard drive that was aided by a couple of Bluejay penalties. On third-and-goal at the 3, Johnson rolled right and just barely penetrated the goal line with 5:17 left in the quarter.
But the Bluejays reasserted themselves from that point on, scoring on their next possession on a 73-yard, 12-play drive that was capped by a 27-yard scoring pass from Hernandez to a wide-open Olando Harris with 1:11 left in the quarter.
After Loewen intercepted a Johnson pass on Mac’s next possession, Tabor drove 31 yards to the Bulldog 15-yard line on runs of 30 and six yards by Hernandez that sandwiched a 21-yard burst by Conant. From the 15, Hernandez connected with Marsh for a scoring pass 51 seconds into the final period.
On the extra-point attempt, Bluejay holder Matt Insley fielded a low snap and improvised a 2-point conversion on a pass to Layne Frick for the final margin.
The measure of the Bluejays’ domination was evident in the final statistics. Tabor rolled up 321 yards total offense to McPherson’s 214.
But in this game the Jays actually found more success on the ground than through the air-rolling up 214 yards on 47 carries compared to 107 yards on seven completions.
Conant picked up 77 of those yards on 12 carries. Hernandez was right behind with 70 yards on 11 carries. Harris was the Bluejays’ workhorse, though, carrying the ball 18 times for 42 tough yards.
The Bluejay defense, which has been the bedrock for this team much of the season, held true to form. Not only did the Jays contain McPherson’s offense, they also forced four turnovers-two fumbles and two interceptions. The offense cashed in two of miscues for scores.
This game was a sweet ending for a team that started the season with a school-record three straight wins-including a win over Kansas Wesleyan, who went on to capture the KCAC championship with an 8-1 record.
But after the KW victory, the Jays, hit by several key injuries, struggled with consistency and lost four of their next six games.
“On the outside, we’re very thankful to be 6-4,” McCarty said. “It’s been hard. But inside our camp we all know what could have been. We got a taste of it, which is probably just as important for the kids who are coming back next year. They’ll have something to go on.”