ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
From the opening kickoff, Tabor College looked every bit like the team fans in these parts were used to seeing last year-only the cast of characters was much different.
The result was an impressive 43-7 win Saturday night at Reimer Field in the Bluejays’ season opener.
Facing Southwest Assemblies of God University, the Bluejays knocked the Lions on their heels from the start, and never allowed the visitors from Texas to regain their balance.
“The guys were ready to look at someone across the line other than themselves and me,” said first-year coach Mike Gardner. “The opening kickoff set the tone for the first few series.”
SAGU’s Jimmy Burkley bobbled Brian Kimsey’s kick and the Bluejays nailed the speedster at his own 1-yard line.
Three plays garnered just three yards, prompting a SAGU punt that was returned by freshman Caleb Marsh all the way to the Lions’ 12-yard line.
On Tabor’s second offensive play of the season, Roger Butler crashed in from six yards out and Tabor led, 7-0.
After the revamped Bluejay defense stopped the Lions on consecutive possessions, the offense produced an eight-play drive that culminated in another Butler rushing touchdown-this one from two yards out-and Tabor led 14-0 with 4:13 left in the first quarter.
The quick-strike Tabor offense got another first-quarter chance. This time, Ricky Ishida threw to Mike Beach for a 66-yard touchdown. The one-play drive took all of 11 seconds.
When the first quarter ended, Tabor possessed the ball for just 5:22 but led, 21-0.
Almost as impressive as the Bluejay offense was its defense.
Last week, SAGU quarterback Ryan Smith accounted for more than 500 total yards in the Lions’ 63-7 win, and collected several national player-of-the-week honors.
Tabor’s defense limited SAGU to just 33 yards in the first quarter.
“As a defensive coach, you always want to find the one or two players you need to contain, and then you need to find the three or four things they do as a team well and take those away,” Gardner said. “If you do that, you put yourself in a position to have a chance to be successful.
“Stopping that quarterback, who can distribute the ball around to several guys, is very important,” he added. “Our defense came out of the gates and did a decent job. We have a lot of things to work on, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.”
SAGU scored what proved to be its only points early in the second quarter. Facing a third-and-6 from its own 39-yard line, Smith hooked up with Josh Jackson for a 61-yard bomb down the Tabor sideline to whittle the lead to 21-7.
But the visitors were left wondering “What hit me?” the rest of the game.
Tabor began its next possession on its own 47-yard line following Marsh’s 31-yard return.
The Bluejays then went to their feature backs, Butler and Ben Brown.
The dynamic duo shredded the Lion defense for 33 yards in just five plays, setting up a 37-yard Kimsey field goal to extend the lead to 24-7 with 10:06 left in the half.
Gardner said the physical duo brought a variety of skills to the team.
“Roger can make you miss at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “Ben would just as soon run over you, but once he gets going downfield, he’s hard to stop.
“Roger can also be a power runner or a slasher, but they really complement each other well. They’re good guys and good teammates.”
The Bluejays rounded out the first-half scoring with the defense on the field.
With the Lions looking at second-and-8 inside their own 20, a Smith pass intended for Scott Ballard was deflected and then plucked out of mid-air by an alert Tyler McKim, who returned it 15 yards for a touchdown.
The Kimsey kick sailed wide right, but Tabor took a commanding 30-7 lead into halftime. The Bluejay offense had rolled up more than 200 yards by then.
“Coach (Dustin) Miller (offensive coordinator) does a great job of putting the quarterback in a situation where he’s going to be successful,” Gardner said, about Ishida’s effectiveness. “Dustin makes sure your receivers can do what their abilities allow them to do, and Ricky does a fantastic job of reading coverages.
“We have some bugs to work out, but overall it was a productive night, offensively.”
In the third quarter, Tabor launched another scoring drive when Ishida hit Layne Frick for 10 yards, then Butler and Brown followed with runs of 42 and 24 yards, respectively.
Facing first-and-goal on the 4-yard line, Ishida capped the drive by floating a perfect pass to Jeff MacKinnon for the score. The kick again failed, but Tabor led 36-7 with 5:11 left in the third quarter.
Tabor rounded out its scoring in the third quarter when Ishida connected on a nine-yard touchdown pass, capping a six-play Bluejay drive to make the score 43-7 with 52 seconds on the clock.
Gardner substituted freely in the fourth quarter, allowing several untested Bluejays to gain valuable game experience.
The gun sounded with Tabor securing a 36-point victory.
After graduating a large and talented senior class last year, Gardner said this year’s team was motivated to perform well.
“I told these guys this is their team and they have to take ownership,” he said. “When you have so many new guys, it’s important to have a good core group of local kids and I think we have that.”
Gardner said the Bluejays exhibited several strengths.
“Our ability to run the ball is a strength, although we need to be able to pick up third-and-short,” he said. “And our linebackers really did a job.
“(Brent) Overmiller, (Jake) Schenk and McKim did a super job and (Brian) Durowaiye and (Carson) Greenhaw also did well when they were in there.”
Schenk led the Bluejays with eight tackles as Tabor held Smith to just 185 total yards, all but two through the air.
Brown was the top rusher in the contest with 91 yards. Butler added 88.
Ishida connected on 18-of-24 passes for 222 yards, spreading the wealth to six Bluejay receivers as Tabor rolled up more than 400 total yards in the game.
The Tabor defense scooped up five Lion fumbles and picked off three SAGU aerials.
With the win, Mike Gardner became the first head coach in Tabor history to win in his coaching debut, but Gardner said it’s no big deal.
“For me, it’s a team sport and it feels just like it did when I was an assistant,” he said. “I took losses just as personal when I was an assistant coach and I was just as elated when we won.”
Coming-Tabor (1-0) travels to Winfield this Saturday night to face Southwestern College (0-1) with a 7 p.m. kickoff.
“They’re very athletic and do a good job of throwing the ball,” Gardner said. “They have such a great tradition down there and I have so much respect for their coach, Chris Douglas, who is a great Christian man and a leader of principle.
“Their offensive line is big and they have a great running back in James Kelley,” he added. “I’m hoping our guys can come back down to earth and realize they have a long ways to go.
“This thing lasts 10 weeks and we still have nine to go.”