The Tabor College Bluejays, co-leaders in the KCAC and ranked 19th nationally, had its hands full for three quarters Saturday afternoon against a pesky McPherson College squad mired in ninth place.
Fortunately, the Bluejays played big in the fourth quarter, breaking a late tie with a 17-0 burst that led to a 46-29 victory at McPherson Stadium.
The win improves Tabor’s record to 8-1 in the KCAC and 8-2 overall. McPherson slipped to 2-7 and 3-6.
The Bulldogs were first to put points on the board when quarterback Jake Tiernan passed to Jackson Goodmiller for a 23-yard touchdown at the 9:53 mark of the opening quarter.
Trailing 7-0, the Bluejays responded like a potential conference champion should, marching 65 yards in 12 plays with Logan Vach penetrating the end zone from a yard away at 5:02. Austin Smith’s extra-point kick bounced off the left upright for a 7-6 deficit.
After the Bulldogs shanked a field goal attempt to end a five-play possession, the Bluejays asserted themselves again, flying 89 yards downfield in four plays with wide receiver Zach Johnson snatching quarterback Curry Parham’s throw for a 33-yard score.
Smith’s kick put Tabor in front at 13-7 with 15 seconds left in the first quarter. Smith added a 23-yard field goal at the 8:25 mark of the second quarter to bump the lead to 16-7.
Right when it seemed Tabor was gaining control of the contest, the Bulldogs’ Tyrone Campbell found the end zone on a 5-yard run, capping a four-play possession that covered 75 yards — including a 65-yard run by Campbell that moved the ball from the McPherson 29 to the Tabor 16.
With the score 16-14, Tabor traveled 73 yards on a six-play drive that finished in the end zone with a 25-yard catch-and-run from Parham to Austin Conway with 4:40 left in the first half.
Oddly, Smith’s extra-point kick clanked off the right upright this time to keep the lead at 22-14 Tabor.
After a McPherson three-and-out, Tabor covered 69 yards in only three plays. Johnson caught a Parham pass covering 31 yards just inside the end zone along the McPherson sideline for the score. Smith converted his kick for a 29-14 lead with 1:32 left in the half.
Another successful defensive stand gave Tabor possession again, this time at its own 45-yard line. After a first-play incompletion, Parham pitched the ball to Charles Beale, who threw a short pass upfield that was intercepted by McPherson’s Ashton Serpas, who returned it for a 40-yard pick-six with 31.5 seconds left in the half.
Tiernan ran untouched into the end zone for the 2-point conversion, which created a halftime score of 29-22 and some nervousness for Tabor fans about the outcome of this game.
The uneasiness only deepened when McPherson blocked Smith’s 35-yard field goal attempt and recovered the football at the Tabor 26. Seven plays later, Tiernan connected with receiver Desmond Anderson for a 39-yard score with 1:30 left in the third quarter, and tying the game at 29-29 following a successful extra-point kick.
By this point, fans of both teams were speculating how this shootout would ultimately play out.
Tabor went to work on both sides of the ball, taking possession at its 40-yard line. Four plays later, Parham launched a 51-yard pass that Tabor’s Treydonte Hill caught and ran it to the McPherson 1-yard line—just as time ran out in the third quarter.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Parham broke through off right tackle to put Tabor in front, 36-29, with Smith’s successful kick.
When the Bluejays forced another McPherson three-and-out, Tabor set up shop at its 20. A 12-yard pass to Skylar Valencia followed by a 13-yarder to Johnson gave Tabor a first down at its 44.
Two plays later, Parham connected again with Johnson for a third touchdown pass, this one covering 56 yards. Smith’s kick bumped Tabor’s lead to 43-29 with 11:48 left in the game.
After an exchange of possessions, Smith nailed the lid on the coffin with a 19-yard field goal, leaving McPherson facing a three-possession deficit with only 5:06 to play.
“We came out at halftime and the result was much, much better,” coach Mike Gardner said. “We had some guys who made some ridiculous individual plays.”
For the game, Tabor rolled up 658 yards of total offense compared to 290 for McPherson. Parham threw for 370 yards on 18-for-34 passing, contributing to an outstanding day for senior Zach Johnson, who caught eight passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bluejays added 288 yards on the ground, with Drevion Cooper running for 186 yards on 13 carries. Tabor’s defense limited the Bulldogs to 106 yards on the ground.
“In the end, offensively, it was fantastic the way those guys were able to drive the ball down the field and score and make big plays,” Gardner said of his team. “Our receivers and Curry did a great job. Even though we got ourselves in third-and-long a few times, they were able to get us out of that and we were able to put points on the board.
“Anytime you score 46, that should be enough to win.”
Coming—When Tabor plays host to fourth-place Bethany College on Saturday, the Bluejays will be seeking to win three consecutive KCAC regular-season titles for the first time since Bethany won four in a row from 1993 to 1996.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at Joel H. Wiens Stadium.