Bluejays’ season ends with 48-13 loss to USF

If national championships were based on character, grit and effort, the Tabor Bluejays would need to be clearing space in the old trophy case as we speak.

Of course, NAIA football championships are based on head-to-head competition, and on Saturday, fourth-ranked University of Sioux Falls Cougars defeated the Bluejays 48-13, ending sixth-ranked Tabor’s storybook run with an 11-1 record.

“It’s a great tribute to a group of kids who refused to believe what people told them they couldn’t do,” coach Mike Gardner said. “There are a lot of things people don’t think are possible, but if you have faith and you have hope and belief….”

Although the game was a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff game-won by USF 72-11 at the same venue-it was evident early that Gardner’s Bluejays weren’t intimidated.

Unfortunately, the game didn’t begin quite like Tabor had hoped.

Deferring its option to the second half, USF kicked off to Tabor, which began the opening drive on its own 18-yard line.

Three plays later, the Bluejays came up three yards short of a first down, and were forced to punt a little more than a minute into the contest.

The Cougars wasted little time flexing their muscle, driving 53 yards in five plays to take a 7-0 lead on Trey Erickson’s 23-yard run.

Tabor began its next drive on the Bluejay 20-yard line. Although a Roger Butler run earned Tabor a first down, the Bluejays were forced to kick the ball back to USF after five plays.

This time the Cougars covered the 60 yards they needed to score in five plays. Quarterback Joe Wright hooked up with Dusty Hovorka from 34 yards out to push the lead to 14-0 with 9:19 left in the opening quarter.

“They got off to a quick lead just like we did last week, and then you’re forced to play catch-up the whole game-but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Gardner said. “Sioux Falls came out and we didn’t stop them when we needed to.”

Trailing by 14 points, the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference champions showed heart by driving from its own 16-yard line to the USF 23 in 13 plays. But Mike Skvor missed a 41-yard field goal attempt to keep the score at 14-0.

But the drive invigorated the Bluejay defense, which stopped USF on three plays and forced the Cougars to punt for the first time.

Tabor needed only 51 yards to score and ran 13 plays on its next drive-but it stalled on the USF 7-yard line.

This time Skvor’s kick was true from 25 yards, slicing the lead to 14-3 with 14:03 left in the second quarter.

Having seized the momentum, Tabor’s defense stepped forward once more. With USF facing third-and-10 from the Tabor 36-yard line, defensive end Alex Wallace picked off a Wright pass and returned it 26 yards to the USF 36.

But Tabor’s drive again stalled, forcing another field goal attempt. Skvor missed from 39 yards away.

After an exchange of possessions, Tabor took over with 2:26 left in the half, looking for one final drive before halftime.

But tragedy struck when Butler caught but then fumbled a shovel pass from Ishida. USF recovered the ball at the Bluejay 25-yard line.

Wright hit Hovorka for 19 yards on first down and Mike Dvoracek carried the final six yards for a Cougar touchdown with 1:52 left in the half.

Tabor regained a measure of momentum before halftime when Jake Schenk blocked the extra point kick and Andy Bartell scooped it up and weaved 80-plus yards for two Tabor points to send the game to halftime with USF on top 20-5.

The second half began with a 45-yard kickoff return by USF’s Erickson to the 50-yard line, but Tabor eventually forced a Cougar punt that sailed out of bounds at the Bluejay 15.

Four plays later, Justin Oswald intercepted Ishida and returned the ball 36 yards to the 15-yard line.

Wright wasted no time making Tabor pay for its mistake. He hit Hovorka on first down for a 15-yard score as USF went on top 27-5 with 11:15 left in the third quarter.

Following an exchange of punts, the game featured an exchange of turnovers.

Ishida was picked off again, this time by USF’s Adam Paulson. But three plays later, Bartell returned the favor, picking off a Wright pass and returning it 13 yards to the USF 42-yard line.

After Ben Brown carried the ball twice for a total of 12 yards, Butler broke free for a 30-yard touchdown. With that score, Butler tied the NAIA record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 32.

After the score, Ishida found Mike Beach for the 2-point conversion and Tabor was back in contention, trailing 27-13 with 4:13 left in the third quarter.

Tabor’s defense came back to stop USF in three plays, but the offense bogged down on its next possession and was forced to punt the ball back to the Cougars as the third quarter ended.

Beginning on its own 47-yard line, USF drove 53 yards in five plays with Wright hitting Hovorka from eight yards out for his third touchdown catch of the afternoon and a 34-13 Cougar lead.

The game went from bad to worse four plays later when Ishida fumbled and USF’s Paulson recovered the ball at the Tabor 39.

Two plays later, Wright found Michael Warren open for a 33-yard touchdown. The wheels had come off the Bluejay bandwagon as USF led 41-13 with 11:02 left to play.

Three possessions later, the Cougars put the final nail in the Tabor coffin when Erickson found the sideline for a 48-yard touchdown to account for the final tally.

“Our kids did a great job in the third quarter, but when the fourth quarter started, we ended up playing on a short field and we couldn’t get any first downs,” Gardner said. “But I don’t take anything away from (USF), that was them stuffing us all the way.”

The final statistics showed USF with 452 total yards-273 coming on the ground while Wright was 14-of-23 passing for 179 yards and four touchdowns.

Tabor had 239 total yards, including 130 on the ground.

Butler concluded his Bluejay career with a 124-yard performance on 22 carries, giving him 1,828 yards for the season.

Butler’s total was the most rushing by a single player against the USF defense in a game this season.

Ishida connected on 19 of 42 passes for 109 yards while being sacked four times.

“We knew we had to play a perfect game in order to beat them and we didn’t do that,” Gardner said. “This is a sport, and the human element in athletics denies you of perfection and today we weren’t perfect.

“We tried to be, but we just didn’t get it done. But I love these kids, I really do.”

Schenk ended his Tabor career with a team-high 10 tackles while Tim Stevens recorded eight and John Ohm seven.

With the loss, Tabor’s record-breaking season ends with an 11-1 mark, a second consecutive KCAC title and the school’s first NAIA playoff win last week.

USF (11-1) moves on to face three-time defending national champion Carroll Montana (12-0) next Saturday in the semifinals.

“Eleven and one isn’t a bad season,” Gardner said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of.

“These kids made a commitment to me, to each other and to the program and it was just a great year.”

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