Defense leads Tabor to victory over Ottawa

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
On a day when the high-powered offense of eighth-ranked Tabor College was held relatively in check by Ottawa, the Bluejay defense ensured the team’s 27-9 win over the Braves.

Playing in a gusty wind Saturday afternoon in Ottawa, Tabor’s No. 2 nationally ranked offense was limited to 324 yards-180 yards below its average through the first seven games.

But the Bluejay defense limited the Braves to only 62 rushing yards and 196 total yards.

“Our defense just basically wanted to go three-and-out,” cornerback Tim Stevens said. “When the offense is down, we try to pick them up, and when we’re down they pick us up.

“It’s the one heartbeat thing, you know,” he added. “We just stick together.”

The wind prompted Tabor to use strategy before the game even began. After winning the coin toss, coach Mike Gardner opted to take the wind and allow Ottawa to have first possession.

The ploy worked to perfection.

After Ottawa gained three yards on first down from its own 20-yard line, Tabor’s Tevita Kolokihakaufisi applied a big hit on Ottawa’s Kevin Mikeska, forcing a fumble. Brent Overmiller recovered the ball on the Ottawa 19-yard line.

Tabor scored six plays later when quarterback Ricky Ishida connected with Jeff MacKinnon from five yards. Marcus Manny added the extra-point kick and Tabor led 7-0 with 11:05 left in the opening quarter.

Ottawa then mounted a 10-play, 44-yard drive. But on fourth-and-five from the 28, the Braves went for a first down into the wind. But Kolokihakaufisi again stopped Mikeska, this time for no gain, to give the ball back to Tabor.

When the Bluejays’ drive ground to a halt at the Ottawa 23-yard line, Manny’s field-goal attempt came up short and the first quarter ended at 7-0.

Following a three-and-out by Ottawa, the Tabor offense was back on the field. This time the Bluejays battled the Braves and the wind-but it made little difference as Ishida guided Tabor downfield, completing passes of 14 yards to Layne Frick and 16 yards to Caleb Marsh.

Facing first-and-goal at the 9, Ishida found John Garcia in the end zone for a touchdown. The point-after kick was blocked but Tabors led 13-0 with 8:18 to play in the half.

Gardner said he wasn’t surprised Ottawa played inspired ball.

“They came out fired up and ready to compete with one of the top offenses in the conference and in the nation,” he said. “You have to be ready week in and week out because when you have a big bulls-eye on your back, people are going to come after you, period.”

The game seemed to be flowing well for Tabor when the defense forced another Ottawa punt. But the usually sure-handed Roger Butler was stripped of the ball on the Tabor 24-yard line and Ottawa recovered the ball on the 31.

The Braves drove downfield in six plays, the big one being a 15-yard pass to mammoth tight end Justin Smail (6-foot-4, 259 pounds).

Tabor’s defense stiffened at the goal line with Josh Tuitupo stuffing Mikeska at the goal line on fourth down.

The Bluejays’ joy was short-lived, however, when they were called for holding in the end zone on the very next play. The blunder resulted in a safety to cut the lead to 13-2 with 2:22 left in the half.

Compounding the situation, Tabor’s kickoff into the wind gave the Braves possession on the Bluejay 44-yard line.

From there, Ottawa drove to the Tabor 2-yard line. Faced with a second-and-goal from the 2 with 15 seconds to play and no time outs, Ottawa gambled on a running play. They hit the jackpot when Mikeska scored.

Patrick Kollars’ extra-point kick cut the lead to 13-9 leaving Ottawa flying high and Gardner seeing red as the half ended.

“All we had to do was make a play because they had no time outs and the clock would have ran out,” Gardner said. “We should have checked our front, but they did a good job of coaching on that play and we didn’t.”

Tabor’s defense opened the second half by putting the kibosh on the Braves offense in three plays to force a punt.

With the ball on its own 42-yard line, Tabor blew through Ottawa defense like a tumbleweed crossing the open prairie.

Ishida hooked up with Butler for a 24-yard pass, then completed throws of 14 and 15 yards to Frick before connecting with Aaron Jenkins for a 12 yard pass.

On first-and-goal at the 3, Butler scored his first touchdown of the afternoon and then added the 2-point conversion to give Tabor a 21-9 lead with 11:02 to play in the third period.

Tabor’s only other scoring threat in the quarter ended when Mike Skvor came up short on a field-goal attempt.

Tabor put on a defensive clinic in the fourth quarter as interceptions by Joe Fenske and Brent Overmiller thwarted drives by the Braves.

“We really put an emphasis on stopping their passing game,” Gardner said. “Coach Kent Kessinger does a great job with that. They have some pretty good players and even a guy who’s a pro prospect (Smail).”

After taking possession of the football on downs on the Ottawa 23-yard line, Tabor secured the win by scoring in six plays. Ishida called his own number on the last four and scored from one yard out with 35 seconds left in the game.

“When we needed it, the offensive line did a great job with our quarterback sneaks,” Gardner said. “It seems like whenever the game is on the line, our kids step up to that challenge.”

The PAT kick never got off the ground, but Tabor settled for a hard-fought 27-9 victory to move to 8-0 overall and 7-0 in Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference. Ottawa fell to 4-4 and 3-4.

“All in all, I’m really proud of the way our kids handled themselves and overcame adversity,” Gardner said. “It’s almost impossible to be perfect, but we can cut down on our mistakes.

“It’s a pretty special time, but we can’t take it for granted that people are going to roll over for us,” he added. “When you’re undefeated, your opponent is always going to bring it.”

Ishida completed 17 of 32 passes for 189 yards and was sacked for only the fourth time this season.

Butler, who entered the game third in the nation in rushing (162.1 yards per game) was limited to 70 yards on 23 carries.

The defense was led by Overmiller with 12 tackles. Jake Schenk added nine stops and John Ohm contributed eight.

Ottawa managed 134 yards through the air as the Braves completed 14 of 31 passes.

“We read their routes well, but we also had good play from our front four,” Stevens said.

Coming-Tabor returns home Saturday to host the Friends Falcons (6-2, 5-2). Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.

“We’ve got a huge game this week,” Gardner said. “They’re a very, very good team. They’re very well coached and they’ll be a handful.”

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