ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The 13th-ranked Tabor Bluejays played Saturday like a family that went on vacation in dad’s old work car, and left the shiny new family sedan in the garage.
The Jays still reached their destination with a 21-12 win in Lansing, but the ride wasn’t nearly as smooth or comfortable as it should have been.
“I would say our football team was extremely flat and played not to lose,” coach Tim McCarty said. “We did not play a good football game, but I don’t want to take anything away from Saint Mary.
“But my concern is for our football team and not theirs,” he added. “We were flat and I think we were looking past them.”
Sitting atop the KCAC with a spotless record, the Bluejays endured a long bus ride, played in a high school stadium before a homecoming “throng” of fans that numbered fewer than Tabor’s,-and to top it off, Saint Mary came into the game with just one win on the year.
Oh yeah. Tabor plays Ottawa next week in a game that could decide this year’s conference champion.
The game began with a harbinger of things to come when the Bluejays fumbled the opening kickoff-but recovered it. Before the game was over, Tabor would fumble nine times, lose three, and give up a pair of interceptions.
“When you put the ball on the ground nine times, you sure shouldn’t win,” McCarty said.
Tabor’s first play from scrimmage resulted in a 17-yard gain by Dwayne Cleaves, but facing second and 14, quarterback Ricky Ishida was picked off by Ruben Washington at the Bluejay 23-yard line.
The Tabor defense held, forcing a 41-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right.
The teams traded possessions the rest of the quarter, with punter Brian Kimsey earning MVP honors for the Bluejays. Kimsey punted three times in the quarter, twice pinning the Spires inside their own 10-yard line.
“We’ve been fortunate because Brian’s been steady,” McCarty said. “The fact that he’s leading the conference in punting isn’t a surprise, because he’s a good one.”
Tabor finally dented the scoreboard on its first possession of the second quarter when the Jays pieced together a nine-play, 73-yard drive.
Cleaves ran the ball six times and scored from 14 yards out with 11:51 left in the half. Keenan Morris added the extra point and Tabor led 7-0.
“We were trying to run the ball,” McCarty said. “They had a good game plan against us and it took us about quarter to figure out how to counter that. Once we did, we put together a nice drive.”
But Saint Mary apparently watched previous Bluejay game film because the Spires attacked at Tabor’s weakness-the long ball.
Facing third and 14 on their own 29-yard line, quarterback Brian Caler hit Jon Quisenberry streaking down the sideline for a 71-yard score with 9:22 left in the half.
The extra point kick sailed wide left, but the Bluejay lead was whittled to one point, 7-6.
Tabor did put together one more decent drive in the first half, but a Morris 36-yard field-goal attempt was no good, and the score remained 7-6 at intermission.
“We went into the game knowing we’re No. 1 in the conference and they were No. 10,” McCarty said. “And we knew we have Ottawa coming in next week. In reality Tabor went into this game thinking, ‘Let’s don’t lose this game and let’s not get injured.'”
But Tabor came out in the second half all business-or so it first appeared.
A failed onside kick gave Saint Mary the ball on Tabor’s 43-yard line, but the rugged Bluejay defense forced a punt.
On Tabor’s first play from their own 18-yard line, Ishida hooked up with Tyson Ratzlaff for a 43-yard pass.
But four plays later, an Ishida pass intended for Jeff MacKinnon landed in the arms of Saint Mary’s Brian Lewton on the Spires’ 19-yard line, killing the drive.
But the Bluejay defense rose to the occasion once more. Facing second-and-10, Caler connected with Jay Osborne across the middle. But the ball was ripped from Osborne’s grasp, and was recovered by Michael Onijala on the Bluejay 42-yard line with 10:08 left in the third quarter.
Tabor made the Spires pay for their turnover nine plays later, when Ishida hooked up with Ratzlaff for a 38-yard score, Ratzlaff’s 11th of the season.
Morris added the extra point, and Tabor had breathing room at 14-6 with 6:47 left in the third quarter.
Neither team scored again the remainder of the quarter, but Tabor was starting to drive. That’s when the Bluejays fumbled again
This time, Ishida, trying to elude the Spire pass rush, coughed up the ball when most Tabor fans thought Ishida was down.
Hearing no whistle, Matt Mayes alertly scooped up the fumbled ball and rumbled 53 yards for a Spire touchdown with 13:16 to play.
Looking to tie the game, Calers aimed at Quisenberry, but the ball fluttered harmlessly to the rock-hard turf, enabling the Bluejays to hang on to the 14-12 lead,
Tabor failed to gain a first down, but Kimsey once again saved the day, booming a 56-yard punt to pin Saint Mary at its own 12-yard line.
Tabor’s defense held the Spires to just three yards in three plays, forcing them to punt. Taking over on the Spires’ 43-yard line, Tabor looked to the ground game for insurance points.
But Cameron Conant, subbing for an injured Cleaves, fumbled the ball and Mayes was there to recover again for Saint Mary with just 8:44 to play.
With their running game completely shut down, the Spires went to the air. Facing second-and-19, Caler threw in the flat to Justin McGlinn.
But Ernest Garza read the play perfectly, stepped in front of the receiver, and took the interception the other way for a 41-yard touchdown on Tabor’s biggest play of the season thus far.
Morris added the kick and the Tabor faithful could finally exhale with 7:32 to play and a 21-12 lead.
“Ernest was playing up on that interception,” McCarty said. “We had a great coverage called for that particular route.
“Garza stepped in on it and took that baby to the house and kind of gave us some relief,” he added. “Our defense just did a great job.”
Tabor’s defense buried the hatchet on the next Spire drive, when Olando Harris picked of a halfback pass from Mark Nobriga.
Tabor then launched a drive of its own before Ishida fumbled on the Spire 9-yard line with just 1:38 left in the game.
But Jeremy Loewen picked off a Caler pass three plays later to preserve the 21-12 victory.
With the win, Tabor ties the 1979 Bluejay team for most wins in a season, and increases the consecutive-games-won streak to eight, and the most wins to begin a season to seven.
McCarty also ties Dan Thiessen as the all-time winningest coach in school history, although taking 40 fewer games to accomplish the feat.
“We won our seventh game, and we’re thankful for that but that’s not how we want to win, McCarty said. “We were glad to get out of there with an ugly win.”
Coming-Tabor will take on Ottawa (6-1 overall, 6-0 KCAC) in a critical contest Saturday at Reimer Field.
“If you want to talk about having your A-game ready, this is the week,” McCarty said. “Ottawa is coming in and they are good.
“We have a huge game coming-without a doubt the biggest game in the history of the Tabor College football program,” he said.
Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.