Bluejays wrap up undefeated season with win over Spires

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Gusty winds Saturday may have signaled impending seasonal changes, but they didn’t change the outcome of Tabor College’s football game as the Bluejays blew through the University of Saint Mary, 43-8.

The win put the final stamp on Tabor’s first undefeated regular season and back-to-back Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference championships.

“It’s kind of overwhelming right now,” coach Mike Gardner said. “I can’t describe it really, but it’s unbelievable to think that for 39 years, this school has had football and this is the first undefeated season we’ve ever had-in addition to the second conference championship in a row.

“To think that I’ve been given the responsibility of that is really overwhelming,” he added. “We have guys here that, for some of them, this is the best experience they’re ever going to have socially, athletically and spiritually. But for others, this is just what they expected when they arrived.”

Although the game was never in doubt, it took some time for the scoreboard to heat up.

Four first-quarter Tabor possession produced two fumbles and two punts. But Tabor’s defense was up to task and produced a 0-0 deadlock.

“Our defense stepped up to the challenge,” Gardner said. “The offense wasn’t performing like we hoped, but the defense took over.”

Tabor finally put points on the board on its first offensive assault of the second quarter.

Beginning on Tabor’s 42-yard line, All-America candidate Roger Butler carried the ball for gains of 8, 19 and 30 yards on consecutive plays to move the ball to the Spires’ 1-yard line.

From there, Butler bounced into the end zone. After adding Mike Skvor’s point-after kick, Tabor led 7-0 with 13:27 left in the opening half.

That’s about the time those gusty winds started making an impact on the contest.

Skvor’s kickoff into the wind literally fell from the sky and onto the Reimer Field turf, where it was recovered by special teams commando Lee Waldron on the Saint Mary 40-yard line.

Although the defense eventually forced a Bluejay punt, it was a sign of things to come.

After both teams traded possessions, Saint Mary set up shop on its own 14-yard line. Three plays later, safety Joe Fenske grabbed an overthrown Spire pass and returned it to the original line of scrimmage.

Two plays later, Butler raced into the end zone from 10 yards out as Tabor opened a 14-0 lead with 5:57 left in the half.

On the ensuing kickoff, Skvor’s kick cleared the Saint Mary front line but dropped in front of the return men. Tabor’s Robert Haude caught the ball in stride in front of the Spire bench, handing Tabor another scoring opportunity at the Spire 20-yard line.

“Any time in this state when the wind blows like this, you have to consider it,” Gardner said. “We even had an official earlier in the season tell us that Kansas is the only state he’s ever worked a game where the wind is a factor.”

Sounding like a stuck record, Tabor put the ball into the hands of Butler on three consecutive plays and the California native finally scored from seven yards out to take the wind out of the Spires.

As if the avalanche of scoring wasn’t disheartening enough for Saint Mary, its special team even had their own success turn against them. The Spires blocked Tabor’s extra-point kick, but the Bluejays’ John Ohm scooped up the ball and carried it-and half of the defense-into the end zone. Tabor had two more points and a 22-0 lead at the 4:52 mark.

While the scoring surge signalled that the Tabor offense had finally awakened, the Bluejay defense maintained its rock-solid play, forcing another Saint Mary punt on the Spires’ next possession.

This time Tabor started a drive on its own 27-yard line, but the relatively poor field positions didn’t seem to matter.

Ben Brown, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to carry the ball on first down, made the most of it and then some, bowling over people on the way to a 54-yard gain.

A penalty pushed Tabor back 10 yards, but Ricky Ishida hit Mike Beach for 19 yards and Brown eventually scored from a yard out to give Tabor a 29-0 lead with 1:09 left in the half.

“It’s always beautiful to carry the rock into the end zone,” Brown said with a smile. “But I just try to do my 1/11th out there on the field and make that hole a little bigger for Roger, because I know that whatever happens for Roger happens for all of us.

“I’m really happy and proud that Roger has rushed for as many touchdowns and yards as he has this season.”

By halftime, Tabor’s stagnant first quarter seemed a distant memory. The Bluejays had amassed 255 rushing yards on 29 attempts and 313 total yards. Saint Mary, meanwhile, gained only 35 yards in 29 plays.

“That’s pretty good,” said Gardner with a smile.

The third quarter picked up where the second quarter ended as Brent Overmiller and Caleb Mason combined to force a fumble by Saint Mary’s Terry Wilcox. The ball was recovered by Mason on the Spire 42-yard line.

Five plays later, Butler dashed into the end zone from 14 yards out and Tabor held a 36-0 lead with 11:12 left in the period.

Butler’s touchdown, his 30th of the season, put him ahead of Tyson Ratzlaff as Tabor’s all-time career scoring leader with 240 points. It also put him two away from tying the NAIA record for rushing touchdowns in a season set by JoJo Jones of Lambuth, Tenn., in 1994.

The Bluejays’ final score came late in the third quarter. After Tabor’s Clayton Sanders recovered at the Saint Mary 11-yard line, Brown cashed in the touchdown on the next play on a punishing run.

Tabor held a 43-0 lead as the third quarter drew to a close.

The fourth quarter was a Gardner delight because the Bluejays were able to substitute freely. Saint Mary took advantage, averting a shutout late in the game by driving 91 yards on four plays.

Keola Nobriga ran the ball into the end zone from 37 yards out. A fake kick led to the final two points of the game.

The Bluejays set a new school record in the contest by rushing for 371 yards on 51 carries; the old record of 360 yards was set in 1988.

Butler wound up with 226 yards on 28 carries with four touchdowns. Brown added 125 yards on nine carries, marking the first time in school history the Bluejays have had a 100- and 200-yard rusher in the same contest.

“It’s special when Roger and Ben are able to do what they do,” Gardner said. “Our offensive line did a great job.”

Tabor finished with 432 total yards while Saint Mary managed 225-91 of which came on their lone scoring drive.

Jake Schenk led the defense with nine unassisted tackles, including three tackles for losses. That gives the senior a school record for tackles for loss in a single season with 17.5.

The Bluejays, who entered the game averaging more than 100 yards per game in penalties, did better, drawing only seven flags for 56 yards.

Skvor punted the ball eight times for a 46.9-yard average.

With the win, Tabor completed its KCAC schedule at 9-0 while improving to 10-0 overall.

“I knew the day I got here we could accomplish what we’ve done the past two years,” Brown said. “The minute I got here and met Coach Gardner, I knew he was a good coach and I saw that he had a good program behind him.”

Saint Mary’s season ended with a record of 3-6 and 4-6.

“I’ve always set high standards for the people I’m around and especially for myself as a coach, and in no way am I trying to sound arrogant,” Gardner said. “But we have a group of kids who have the mindset that you take the God-given talent we’ve all been given and use it to the best of your ability.”

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