ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
After all the preseason hype, Tabor College finally got its chance to show its wares.
The Bluejays did just that Saturday night in Waxahatchie, Texas, with a solid 26-7 victory over Southwest Assemblies of God University.
The Bluejays dominated the Lions on both sides of the ball and cruised to only the fifth non-conference season-opening victory in the school’s 36-year history-but the third consecutive one in the era of coach Tim McCarty.
“It was time to hit somebody other than our own teammates,” McCarty said. “Anytime you open the season with 21/2 weeks of practice, take a long road trip and sit around the hotel for a day, play a night game and get out of Texas with a win and no injuries, you have to feel good.”
Tabor’s offense sputtered on its opening possession, seemingly struggling to find a rhythm.
“Our late practicing start in the KCAC really hurts us, there’s no doubt about it,” McCarty said. “SAGU has been going for quite awhile and have basically had three weeks of practice in addition to two games.”
Tabor’s defense wasted little time retrieving the ball for the Bluejay offense, stuffing the Lions and forcing a punt.
Waiting in the wings for the punt was Tyler Marsh and the senior standout didn’t disappoint. He fielded the ball at the SAGU 43-yard line and raced 21 yards to give Tabor a short field to begin its second drive.
“Marsh was all over the place,” McCarty said. “If I was the other team, I don’t know if I’d even kick it to him.”
But Tabor’s offense stalled after seven plays and settled for a 29-yard field goal by Keenan Morris with 7:31 to play in the first quarter.
But the Bluejays had taken a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The teams traded punches until SAGU regained possession with just over five minutes to play in the first quarter. The Lions mounted a nine-play drive beginning on their own 20-yard line, but ran out of gas on the Tabor 15.
Justin Friesen then blocked a 32-yard field goal attempt to keep the Lions off the board.
Neither team was able to mount a sustainable drive until the Bluejays took over midway through the second quarter.
Tabor was pinned at its own 9-yard line. But strong running by Dwayne Cleaves, a 6-1, 180-pound sophomore, and effective passing by quarterback David Hernandez moved the ball downfield.
Marsh and Tyson Ratzlaff both made receptions on the drive for a combined 23 yards.
“To have both Marsh and Ratzlaff on the field is very comforting,” McCarty said. “It’s been almost a whole year since we’ve been able to look out and see them both.”
But this drive belonged to Cleaves, who rushed for 16, 12 and 33 yards to put the ball on the Lions’ 7-yard line.
Facing first-and-goal, Cleaves burst up the middle for an apparent touchdown, but was stripped of the ball at the goal line, with the Lions recovering.
“Dwayne was running hard, but with just 21/2 weeks to prepare, we don’t hit full speed in practice for health reasons,” McCarty said. “I think he just wasn’t used to the increased speed of a real game.”
SAGU took over on its 1-yard line, but Cody Kelley intercepted a pass seven plays later to give Tabor the ball on the Lions’ 33-yard line.
A five-play drive-the big one being a Hernandez pass to Ratzlaff for 19 yards-resulted in the first touchdown of the season, an 11-yard scoring hookup between the same two teammates.
The extra-point attempt was blocked, but the Bluejays led 9-0 with 1:31 left before intermission.
After a four-and-out possession by the Lions to begin the second half, the Bluejays went back to work at their own 34-yard line.
Tabor pieced together a nine-play drive, again highlighted by a Hernandez-Ratzlaff pass for 34 yards.
But the drive stalled on the Lion 7-yard line and Tabor settled for a 25-yard field goal by Morris, increasing the lead to 12-0 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
On the ensuing possession, lightning struck for the Lions. Facing second and five, quarterback Ryan Smith connected with wide receiver John Norman for a 75-yard scoring pass.
“They ran a slant fade on us, and our defender froze for just half a second and Norman got about half a step on us,” McCarty said. “The throw was great and the catch was great, and they just earned the touchdown.”
With the lead cut to 12-7, Tabor called upon its special teams-and Marsh in particular-to regain the momentum.
Marsh took the kickoff and returned it to mid-field.
“Marsh’s kickoff return pretty much took the wind out of their sails,” McCarty said. “Our special teams did a great job controlling field position.”
Tabor proceeded to power its way down field, moving 50 yards in six plays, aided by a SAGU personal foul. Cameron Conant (11 rushes for 32 yards) scored on a burst of 12 yards.
“Conant started the game, but we knew we had two other backs (Cleaves and Brandon Bockman) who could contribute,” McCarty said.
“Depending on what the defense is doing, our backs have different styles. We needed to be able to get around the corner and Cleaves was able to do that.”
A tackle-eligible pass from Matt Insley to Friesen on the point-after increased the lead to 20-7 with 7:33 left in the third quarter.
After Tabor’s defense held again, the offense took over on its own 33-yard line, thanks to a 24-yard Marsh punt return.
Nine plays and 42 yards later, Morris connected on a 42-yard field goal, bumping the Bluejay lead to 23-7.
Four plays and a punt by SAGU gave Tabor possession at its own 44. From there, Hernandez hit Ratzlaff with an apparent 56-yard scoring strike-but it was wiped out by an illegal-procedure penalty.
“They said our right tackle wasn’t quite right on the line,” McCarty said. “I haven’t seen that before.”
Undaunted, the Bluejays pieced together a seven-play drive capped by a 33-yard field goal by Morris to bring the score to the final 26-7 margin with 11:02 remaining.
With that kick, Morris set school records for field goals made in a single game (4) and most points scored by a kicker in a game (12).
“Eventually our team speed wore them out and they just couldn’t get going,” McCarty said. “Our being able to make some mistakes and overcome those with speed, and making them have to execute at such a high level, really helped us defensively.”
Tabor finished the night with 443 yards total offense, gaining 234 yards rushing on 37 carries, with Cleaves picking up 155 yards on 13 carries. Both the team total and Cleaves’ individual total are the most in a single game in the McCarty era.
Tabor also passed for 209 yards, with Hernandez completing 13-of-30 for 202 yards. Hernandez passed Rod Wallace for most career passing attempts with 570.
Ratzlaff finished the day with seven receptions for 94 yards, which gives the senior receiver 100 career receptions.
Tabor’s defense, meanwhile, held SAGU to 309 total yards-75 on one play-including 98 rushing yards on 33 carries.
Turnovers were one disappointment, with the Bluejays fumbling four times and losing three.
“We weren’t at all pleased with that, and it’s one area we’re going to have to address,” McCarty said.
“The thing that was really pleasing was we never fell behind and were able to make vital adjustments during the course of the game. We came out of it with no injuries and a big win.”
Coming-The Bluejays will begin KCAC action at home this Saturday against Sterling. Game time is 7 p.m.
“Sterling will come in with a young and rambunctious club, and they’ll want to disturb our offense,” McCarty said.
“They’ll probably blitz us a lot and they like to throw the ball quite a bit, so we’ll have to see what happens on that side of the ball as well.”