ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ANDREW OTTOSON
On a cold, wet and windy Saturday afternoon in Hillsboro, the Tabor College Bluejays defeated the Southwestern College Moundbuilders by a final score of 12-8.
“It was a great character test for the whole team, and we came out on top,” coach Robert Rubel said. “I knew we were capable of that.”
Southwestern received the opening kickoff, but both teams’ defenses conspired with the weather to keep the score knotted at zero for most of the first half.
The offenses combined for zero first downs, six punts, two fumbles and a botched field goal attempt in the first quarter.
Braden Smith fumbled on the Moundbuilders’ first play from scrimmage, and Chris Cook recovered for Tabor.
Two incomplete passes set up a 32-yard field goal attempt that Tabor never got off the ground.
The teams then traded three-and-outs until Southwestern recovered a fumble with 2:37 left in the first quarter.
On the day, Tabor fumbled six times but still won the turnover battle. Lack of familiarity between the quarterbacks and senior backup center Ben Ottoson may have been a factor.
“(Ottoson) is a guy that has stuck around here, stuck it out and was able to start (his first) game… and we won, so he’s going to start again this week,” Rubel said.
The Moundbuilders’ fourth punt of the first quarter came on the penultimate play, and DeJaun Jones broke a 14-yard run to give the Bluejays a head of steam heading into the second.
With momentum at their backs and the wind in their faces, the Bluejays temporarily shelved their passing game, and went to the run for 12 straight plays.
Mario Nava, Julius Williams, Jones and Hector LaBoy all had multiple carries as the Bluejays moved 77 yards in 4:30 to open the scoring.
With 10:30 left in the second quarter, Nava blasted into the end zone to put the home team on top.
With Tabor leading 7-0, the defenses matched each other stop for stop, and the first half ended with the score unchanged.
Midway through the third quarter, Smith seemed to have knotted the score with a touchdown pass to Jacob Behrhorst from 5 yards out.
But on the extra-point attempt, Kyle Basinger slipped into the Moundbuilders’ backfield and blocked Eloy Mendoza’s kick. By rule, a blocked extra point can be returned for a 2-point conversion, and the Bluejays-in the form of freshman cornerback Sean Retting-did exactly that.
Retting scooped up the live ball, weaved his way out of traffic and broke into the clear, covering 90-plus yards and leaving a trail of ecstatic teammates and exhausted defenders in his wake.
The play swung three important points in the Bluejays’ favor, and Tabor led 9-6 with 5:50 left in the third.
Retting made another massive play before the quarter expired by getting a hand on Colby Seagraves’ sixth punt of the day. The block, combined with 32 more rushing yards from Nava, Williams and Jones, set up Derik Martinez for a 27-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Behind by six points, the Moundbuilder defense forced a fourth down and Martinez came on to punt from inside the Tabor 10-yard line.
But the play imploded in the backfield and Southwestern came up with the ball four yards from paydirt.
Determined to make the 12-6 lead stand up, the Bluejay defense stopped three consecutive plays for no gain before John Mark Phelps picked off a pass less than a foot outside of the end zone.
Three consecutive Ricky Ishida keepers ticked away nearly three minutes of the 5:14 remaining on the clock.
Then, instead of inviting another special-teams breakdown deep in their own end, the Bluejays took a strategic safety on fourth down.
“The yards were more important than the points, and the defense was doing a great job keeping them out of the end zone,” Rubel said.
The two points cut Tabor’s lead to 12-8, but freed Martinez to punt without a pass rush in his face.
Smith connected with Kareem Thompson for 38 yards, but Rubel’s gambit paid off for the Bluejays when Retting intercepted Smith’s last pass of the day.
“(Retting) is blue-collar…he comes to work and does exactly what we ask him to…and it is really paying off for him,” Rubel said.
Tabor totaled 209 yards-all on the ground-with 106 of those coming on 15 carries by Jones.
Jones became only the fourth quarterback in team history to run for more than 100 yards in a game and the first since Shawn Newport in 1988.
Nava carried the ball 12 times and, in addition to scoring the Bluejays’ only touchdown of the day, “the Pride of Peabody” piled up 47 of the home team’s 209 rushing yards.
By contrast, Southwestern managed just 27 rushing yards against the flock of Bluejay run-stoppers.
Chris Cook, Alex Wallace, Basinger and Joe Wuest all recorded tackles for loss, and Wallace added a pair of sacks.
The plays Wallace made in Southwestern’s backfield cost the Moundbuilders 38 hard-earned yards, and the pressure kept Smith in check for most of the afternoon.
Rubel talked at length about the team’s defensive effort.
“It’s hard to single out any of those (defensive) guys,” he said. “Phelps had a big interception, Shaiphan Lewis played really well, (Andy) Bartell had an interception. Basinger had a lot of tackles.
“From a defensive standpoint, we’re really excited about where this team is headed.”
Smith completed 21 of 37 passes for 218 yards, but was intercepted three times in addition to the sacks.
The victory gave the Bluejays their first consecutive victories of the season, leveling Tabor’s conference record at 3-3 and improving the team’s overall mark to 4-3. The team will be back in action at Reimer Field on Saturday against an Ottawa team that has yet to win a game this season. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.