ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The Tabor football team has caught a bug-but it has nothing to do with the approaching cold and flu season. The Bluejays have contracted the “turnover bug.”
For the second straight week, Tabor lost the football three times on fumbles and twice on interceptions-but this week the opponent wasn’t lowly Saint Mary. It was the Ottawa Braves.
Sporting a 6-0 KCAC record, Ottawa took advantage of the Bluejays’ mistakes and the talent of standout running back Derrick Ward to spoil Tabor’s undefeated season with a 27-3 win Saturday at Reimer Field.
“Turnovers and field position killed us,” coach Tim McCarty said. “We never had good starting position offensively, and we couldn’t hold onto the ball.”
Tabor took the opening kickoff after a touchback and drove the ball 54 yards in 11 plays. But facing fourth-and-four from the Ottawa 26, quarterback Ricky Ishida fumbled the center snap. He recovered the ball, but Ottawa took over on downs.
That play proved to be a microcosm of the first half.
The first quarter ended in a scoreless tie even though Tabor controlled the ball for 10 minutes 56 seconds and racked up 92 yards.
In the second quarter, a 10-play Tabor drive ran out of gas on fourth-and-13 at Ottawa’s 37.
The Braves gave the ball to Ward, who came into the game as the nation’s third-leading rusher at 175 yards per game. On the first carry, he banged his way for six yards. On the next play he cut through the Tabor secondary en route to a 57-yard touchdown.
Jarrod Tatum kicked the extra point and the Braves grabbed a 7-0 advantage.
The Bluejays continued to control the line of scrimmage in the first half, mounting drives of 12, 13, 11 and 10 plays only to see each of them stall.
Facing second-and-10 from the Brave 22-yard line, Ishida’s pass intended for Preston Neufeld deflected off the tight end’s hands and into the waiting arms of Ottawa’s Fred Simmons.
The Braves couldn’t capitalize and the half ended with Ottawa holding the slim 7-0 lead.
“We ran about 50 offensive plays in the first half, and they ran about 25, but we just couldn’t come up with any points,” McCarty said.
In fact, Tabor accumulated 207 first-half yards.
“We went into halftime not so much frustrated, but we also knew we weren’t where we should have been,” McCarty said. “We had plenty of opportunities in the half, but we just did not finish our drives.”
Ottawa began the second half by piecing together a sustained drive that carried them to the Bluejay 4-yard line with a first and goal. But the Braves began an implosion that eventually led to a fourth-and-43 from the 47.
“Our game plan was actually working to a T,” McCarty said. “We knew what kind of team we had. We knew their weaknesses as a team. When they fell apart on that drive, we knew that was going to happen.”
But McCarty didn’t know what would soon follow.
After forcing an Ottawa punt, which was downed on the Tabor 6-yard line, the Bluejays gave the ball back to the Braves on a fumble at the 3.
Two plays later, Ward elevated over the defense and into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown, staking Ottawa to a 14-0 lead with 8:29 left in the third quarter.
“That fumble absolutely broke our backs,” McCarty said. “We knew our defense was going to give up some points, but we also knew we could move the ball on them.”
“But we had to score,” he added. “Had we been able to score, we would have probably seen a different Ottawa team, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Tabor came back with what proved to be its only scoring drive of the afternoon on the next possession. Seven plays and 69 yards put the ball on the Braves’ 8-yard line. But the drive ran out of gas and Tabor settled for a Keenan Morris field goal to cut the lead to 14-3.
The kick gave Morris a school-record 10 field goals in a single season.
The points gave Tabor hope, but the Derrick Ward highlight show was about to begin.
Displaying a variety of dazzling moves and cuts, plus soft hands as a receiver, Ward carried the ball four times for 23 yards and caught a 29-yard pass on the Braves’ next drive.
He capped the seven-play, 64-yard drive, with a seven-yard plunge into the end zone to give his team a 21-3 advantage.
The third quarter ended with another Ishida-to-Neufeld pass deflection that resulted in a Levi Thurman interception.
The Tabor defense forced another Ottawa punt, but the subsequent Bluejay drive ended when Ishida fumbled the ball and it was recovered by Daniel Hanaumi on the Ottawa 37.
The two teams exchanged possessions before the Braves took over for one last scoring drive.
Beginning on the Bluejay 46-yard line, Ward carried four times before scoring on a five-yard scamper. The point-after kick was blocked by Rocky Avatongo, but Ottawa led, 27-3.
“I can’t imagine there’s a better back at this level than Derrick Ward,” McCarty said. “That would just be hard to visualize.”
A bright spot for the Bluejays came on the ensuing kickoff, when Tyler Marsh returned to form after a mid-season injury, and returned the kick 75 yards to the Ottawa 25-yard line.
Marsh also grabbed 11 passes for 180 yards, to propel his total yards for the day to near 300.
Another welcome sight for Bluejay fans was the return of quarterback David Hernandez, who had sat out several weeks with a injury.
Hernandez completed just one pass for eight yards, but it pushed the career yardage total for the Junction City senior over 4,000 yards.
The game concluded with the Braves trying to score yet another touchdown as time wound down.
Ottawa drove the ball 76 yards in the game’s final six minutes and concluded with a pass into the end zone from seven yards out on the game’s final play.
“The pressure on our kids was tremendous,” McCarty said. “We would like to play the game over, but we have a saying that we get three hours each Saturday and one chance. We had our time and chance but didn’t take advantage of it.”
In the end, five turnovers and Ward’s 231 yards on 36 carries was too much for Tabor.
The Bluejays rolled up 348 yards of offense, compared to 386 for the Braves, but Tabor’s inability to cross the goal line proved deadly.
“We’re disappointed we lost, but there’s still a lot of season left and a lot of goals to be accomplished,” McCarty said. “We can still be conference champs or co-champs if Ottawa slips up, but we have to take care of business on our own end.
“Our focus needs to be on regrouping and enjoying our remaining time together as a football team,” he added. “We don’t want Ottawa to beat us twice.
“We still have a chance to make it to the national playoffs if we win out,” he said. “We can still become the all-time winningest team in Tabor history.”
With the win, the Braves take sole possession of first in the KCAC with a 7-0 record; they are 7-1 overall with their only loss to the nation’s No. 4 team, Mid-America Nazarene.
The Bluejays drop to 7-1 overall and 6-1 in the KCAC.
Coming-Tabor will travel to Winfield on Saturday to take on Southwestern at 1:30 p.m.
“We’ll have to regroup and refocus,” McCarty said. “We still need to be goal oriented and focus on achieving the goals we’ve set as a team.
“We have to clean up our turnovers because Southwestern is a good enough football team that they’ll make us pay if we don’t.”