Football Jays earn invite with win over Bulldogs

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The Tabor Bluejays only had to worry about taking care of business Saturday in McPherson, and hope fate would take care of itself.

They did-and it did.

The Bluejays defeated the high-scoring Bulldogs 26-7 at McPherson to finish the regular season 9-1. On Sunday, they found out they were rewarded with an invitation to the NAIA playoffs.

The 15th-ranked Bluejays will face sixth-ranked Northwestern Oklahoma State (8-1) at 1 p.m., Saturday at Alva.

“We had a good idea that if we won, we’d be in (the playoffs), but that wasn’t decided until Sunday,” coach Tim McCarty said.

The Tabor defense got a chance to shine first Saturday, but nearly had some of its luster stripped as McPherson began a drive on its own 38-yard line and proceeded to drive inside the Tabor red zone.

Facing a first and goal on the Bluejay 10, an incomplete pass and a three-yard run put the Bulldogs in a third-and-seven situation.

Linebacker Eli Kennedy took charge on the next play and sacked quarterback Erik Johnson for an eight-yard loss.

The Bulldogs called upon kicker Chris Sweatman for a 32-yard field goal. But the snap and placement failed, and holder Jared Heinen was nailed on the 25-yard line, setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

Quarterback Ricky Ishida engineered a seven-play drive of 75 yards that culminated with Ishida hitting starting halfback Tim Jones out of the backfield for a 32-yard touchdown.

Keenan Morris added the kick, and the Bluejays led 7-0 with 5:34 to play in the first quarter.

Jones, along with Brandon Bockman, filled in for regular halfbacks Dwayne Cleaves and Cameron Conant, who both continue to nurse injuries.

“For their limited roles this season, I thought both Brandon and Tim did a good job,” McCarty said. “It takes time to get game momentum and a game understanding. I was pleased.”

McPherson mounted another drive courtesy of a 55-yard pass from Johnson to John Berlanga down to the Tabor 25-yard line.

But once again, the Bluejays dug in and forced a field goal attempt-which this time sailed wide, preserving the 7-0 lead.

Tabor failed to move in its next drive, but punter Brian Kimsey began a game-long trend of pinning the Bulldogs deep in their own territory, this time at the 5-yard line.

“Kimsey had a great game and our two gunners were right there when the ball landed,” McCarty said. “Tim Steven just had an outstanding game.”

Johnson connected with Berlanga for another bomb, this time of 47 yards, but the drive stalled for McPherson.

The teams traded possessions before Ishida was picked off by Preston Taylor, who returned it to the McPherson 25-yard line.

The Bulldogs again mounted a drive, but it stalled once more and McPherson gave up possession on the Bluejay 30-yard line with 4:19 left in the half.

After Tabor failed to move the ball, Kris Smiley mishandled a Kimsey punt, and the Bluejays recovered the fumble on their own 45-yard line.

Like a shark sensing blood in the water, Ishida hooked up with Tyson Ratzlaff on the second play of the drive for a 62-yard touchdown strike, Ratzlaff’s 14th of the season.

Morris’ kick banged off the left upright, but the Bluejays had breathing room at 13-0 going into halftime.

The second half began on an ominous note for Tabor when Tyler Marsh fumbled a shovel pass reception on Tabor’s 30-yard line. Bulldog lineman Jason Henry rumbled down to the Bluejay 15-yard line with the ball, and McPherson was back in business.

Facing third-and-five from the 10, Johnson found Berlanga in the end zone, cutting the Bluejay lead to 13-7 with 5:42 to play in the half.

But the Bluejays, showing their character, answered the Bulldogs score with one of their own.

Tabor marched 83 yards in 13 plays and scored when Ishida scored on a quarterback sneak from three yards out. The 2-point conversion failed, but Tabor was back on top 19-7 with 5:42 left in the third quarter.

The Tabor defense once again stymied the Bulldog offense, and Jays’ took over on downs at the 48-yard line.

But when Tabor couldn’t move either and lined up to punt, McCarty called for a fake, and was rewarded beyond his wildest expectations as Tyler Marsh connected with Jeff MacKinnon for a 49-yard touchdown pass.

“It was something we saw during the game,” McCarty said. “We’ve had the fake in all year, but they were standing some guys up and tempting us, you might say, and we fell for the temptation.”

Leading 26-7, the rest was up to the defense and it responded, shutting down the KCAC’s second-leading rusher, Lamar Jacobs -averaging 160 yards per game- to just 57 yards on 15 carries.

“There’s no doubt our defense had an outstanding game,” McCarty said. “Mike (Gardner, defensive coordinator) had a great game plan for this game.

“Jason Phelps also made some really good field adjustments,” he added. “He’s got the green light to make those checks and I thought the kids were able to finish the regular season nicely for us.”

Ishida once again propelled the Bluejay offense, connecting on 11 of 22 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns.

“Ricky had another great game,” McCarty said. “He just took off where he left off the last game, but he does also have some pretty good receivers.”

Tops on that list were Ratzlaff, with four catches for 127 yards, and Tyler Marsh, with four catches for 43 yards.

“I was pleased with the majority of the game,” McCarty said. “I wasn’t too pleased with our penalty situation (15 for 150 yards), but overall I thought we did a good job.

“We were a little bit beat up, but the kids made it through the regular season and won their last two big games on the road,” he said.

“After losing what basically has been established as the conference championship game here with Ottawa, they rebounded very nicely.”

Overall, the Bluejays rolled up 352 yards of offense, pushing them over the 4,000-yard mark for the season.

Defensively, sophomore linebacker Jake Schenk led the Bluejays with 16 tackles (11 unassisted, five assists), four tackles for losses resulting in 29 lost yards for McPherson, and two quarterback sacks.

His effort earned him KCAC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Coming-Tabor will face a tough Northwest Oklahoma State on Saturday.

“They’re a high-scoring bunch,” McCarty said. “They have a hard time getting people to play them. They’ve beaten a couple NCAA Division II schools this year, including Colorado School of Mines.”

“They are predominately a passing team on offense and they chase your tail all over the field on defense,” he said. “We’re going to be fine. We just have to commit and we’ll absolutely have to bring our ‘A’ game.

“We’re hoping to take a good bunch of people down to Alva to watch us play,” he added.

Ticket information for the game is available by calling the NOS business office at 580-327-8534. Prices are $6 for students (K-12), $8 for adults and $10 at the gate.

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