Tabor’s defense and special teams paved the way to a 12-7 victory in its conference and home opener Saturday at Joel H. Wiens Stadium.
All of the Bluejays’ points came from KCAC Special Teams Player of the Week Joe Cannon, a redshirt-freshman kicker who also gave Tabor 327 yards on five kickoffs.
“His ability to kick off is really helping us a lot,” coach Mike Gardner said. “He’s had six touchbacks in two weeks. Any time you can keep offenses down there, that’s a really good thing.”
Tabor received the ball to start the game and drove downfield with quarterback Simon McKee stringing together yardage to move the ball to the 48-yard line before Tabor fumbled the ball away to Sterling.
But Tabor’s defense prevented Sterling from capitalizing on the turnover. Both teams traded scoreless possessions, before Tabor recovered a Warrior fumble on the Bluejay 38-yard line.
Tabor earned three first downs in quick succession, moving to Sterling 24-yard line as the quarter end.
But as they began the second period, McKee threw an interception. Fortunately, the Bluejay defense prevented the turnover from turning into Warrior points.
The Bluejays were the first team to put points on the board. Tabor culminated a drive from its own 46-yard line with a field goal from the first of four field goals from Cannon. Tabor led 3-0 with 3:53 left in the half.
Just 24 seconds before the end of the half, Sterling quarterback John Cardona scored on the keeper to give the Warriors a 7-3 lead going into the locker room.
In the second half, Cannon nailed another field goal with 4:34 left in the third quarter, narrowing the margin to 7-6. Sterling had stopped the Bluejays one yard away from a touchdown.
Tabor’s defense gave the offense a boost moments later, recovering a fumble on Sterling’s 11-yard line with 4:22 left.
Sophomore running back Brandon Johnson rushed to the 7-yard line, but when two passes fell through receivers’ hands, the Bluejays settled for another field goal to take a 9-7 lead with 3:15 remaining in the third period. Moments later, Tabor’s JP DeJesus intercepted Cardona’s pass near the Tabor 43-yard marker and ran it to the Sterling 24-yard line with two minutes left.
Facing a fourth-and-2 situation, Tabor relied once more on Cannon’s leg for a 12-7 lead early in the final quarter.
Victory was far from certain with Sterling still within a touchdown. But the Warriors fumbled on a punt return as the clock wound down, giving Tabor the ball on Sterling’s 31-yard line with just 36 seconds left to clinch the win.
Though happy with the win, Gardner saw plenty of room for improvement.
“We’ve got to find a way to score in the red zone,” he said. “If we want to become a contender in our conference, our offensive line play has to get better. I’d like to see us be a lot cleaner in the red zone and finish drives.”
Cannon proved to be the hero of the day, but he had help.
“Our special teams is probably the most improved thing we’ve had from last year,” Gardner said, “not just with Joe Cannon, but with the way we cover kicks and the way we’ve been able to prevent long plays. That has to continue.”
Contributing to Tabor’s 319 yards of total offense were: James Monroe Jr., who led the team in rushing with 87 yards; McKee, who was 15 of 20 through the air for 118 yards and only one interception; and senior wide receiver Tanner Giffin, who had five receptions for 36 yards. Leading the defensive effort were junior defensive end Terach Antoine and junior defensive back Cody Godshall, who each had four solo tackles and an assist. In addition to his interception, DeJesus also forced a fumble and had two solo tackles and two assists.
“Defensively, I knew going into this season that we were going to be pretty salty,” Gardner said. “If we can get everybody healthy, we’ll be even better.”
Coming—The victory gives the Bluejays a 1-1 record heading into Saturday’s home game with non-conference opponent Haskell Indian Nations University at Joel H. Wiens Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.