ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ANDREW OTTOSON
When offensive lineman Bobby Hurd joined the kickoff coverage unit to get Saturday’s game under way, it was obvious the Tabor Bluejays were going to have fun.
But “fun” might not have been the first word on University of Saint Mary kickoff returner Jay Osborne’s mind while he was being dragged to the turf by Tabor’s starting right guard.
Without a playoff spot on the line, fun and pride were the names of the game during Saturday’s 30-21 victory in Leavenworth.
“We really wanted to go out on a high note, send our seniors out with a win, and have a lot of fun doing it,” coach Robert Rubel said.
On the opening possession, USM running back Sirdonovan Palmer sprinted 54 yards to set up a score on the Spires’ opening possession.
Osborne finished the drive with a nine-yard touchdown run, and the Tabor offense quickly matched the home team.
“We started a little slow, but when we finally got in the mix, it all worked out for us,” Rubel said.
Trailing 7-0, quarterback DeJaun Jones stepped into his first throw of the game and fired the ball over the top of the USM defense to Caleb Marsh, who caught the pass in the middle of the field, 10 yards beyond the last Spire defender.
“When they have to bring up defensive backs to stop the run, we can use the deep passing game,” Rubel said.
The season-long effectiveness of the deep passing game shows up in Jones’s conference-best pass efficiency rating of 143.8.
As a program, Tabor set new records for fewest interceptions thrown in a season and yards gained per catch.
Marsh’s catch-and-run went for 74 yards and six points, but the point-after attempt misfired.
So, trailing by a point and not about to let the offense steal the show, the Tabor defense scored on USM’s second possession.
Cornerback Sean Retting jumped in front of quarterback Taylor Calvert’s intended receiver on the Spires’ first pass, made the interception and bolted down the sideline.
The 30-yard return put Tabor on top 12-7, and the second PAT of the day sailed between the uprights.
The defensive touchdown set a new school record, and the team’s toughness against the run resulted in a new season record for fewest rushing yards allowed.
On the kickoff following the score, the Bluejays sent offensive lineman Grant Myers in as part of the kickoff coverage unit, and Myers brought a roar from the TC faithful who made the long drive to Platt City.
Accelerating down the middle of the field, Myers set his sights on wiping out the blocker who had the misfortune of lining up across from him.
The collision between Myers and his blocker ended up knocking a total of three Spires down, and the Myers’ aggressiveness also drew an illegal block penalty that pushed USM back to their own 14.
But seven plays later, Palmer broke loose again.
Catching a pass from Matt Warner, Palmer rumbled 57 yards before being run down by Andy Bartell at the TC 7-yard line.
Palmer scored from a yard out three plays later and the Spires took their second lead of the day.
With the home team ahead 14-13 going into the second quarter, the teams traded three-and-outs.
On the second offensive possession of the quarter, Tabor appeared headed for another punt when Jake Landoll dropped Bluejay runningback Matthew Dean eight yards behind the line of scrimmage.
But the second-and-18 set up another long completion.
Standing at his own 10-yard line, Jones launched his second long bomb of the day and connected with Aaron Jenkins, who was open at midfield.
The pass went for 41 yards, and Jones connected with Jenkins again to finish the drive from 29 yards out.
The extra point made the score 20-14 going into halftime.
Calvert caught fire in the third quarter, completing three of his first four pass attempts and authoring a seven-play, 67-yard scoring drive as USM took a 21-20 lead on a pass to Charles Lee.
The third quarter ended with Spires defender Ray Garcia intercepting a pass at the USM 2-yard line.
As it has done all season, the Tabor defense effectively wiped out the offensive mistake with strong play.
Forcing a three-and-out put the ball back in Jones’ hands, and the TC quarterback weaved his way through traffic and broke into the clear on an option keeper.
After he sidestepped the first wave of would-be tacklers, Jones simply outran the USM secondary and scored.
A 2-point conversion put Tabor up 28-21 with 12 minutes to play.
With the clock on their seasons rapidly ticking away, the teams traded fumbles deep in Spire territory.
Jones sustained an injury diving after a loose ball, and senior quarterbacks Ben Schmidt and Ricky Ishida finished the game.
Before either Schmidt or Ishida would get into the game, the Bluejay defense scored again, this time with a safety.
After Tabor fumbled the ball on the Spire 10-yard line, the Bluejays allowed only two yards on three plays in forcing USM to punt out of its own end zone.
Under pressure from multiple Bluejays, punter Chris Butala fumbled the snap, picked up the ball, fumbled a second time, and tried to kick the ball out of a TC defender’s hands. The loose ball bounced into the hands of a USM blocker, who ran toward the marker and appeared to have converted for a Spires first down.
As the dust settled, the officials gathered together in what may have been the longest caucus of the season.
“What they told me was, if a player fumbles in the end zone on fourth down, that player has to advance it,” Rubel said. “So when (USM) picked it up, the play was dead.”
The result was a safety, and the two points put TC up 30-21. USM would come no closer during the final 10 minutes.
An interception by John Mark Phelps brought Ishida and 10 other Tabor seniors onto the field to end the game and the season with a win for the Bluejays.
With a 5-4 conference record, Tabor finished fifth in the KCAC behind Sterling, Kansas Wesleyan, Friends and Bethel. Friends and Bethel finished tied for the top spot in the conference with 8-1 records.