Tabor College’s 17th-ranked Bluejays rolled up a 21-0 lead against the University of Saint Mary before the halfway point of the first quarter. After that, though, they played the 1-4 Spires even-steven for a 44-24 victory Saturday at Joel Wiens Stadium.
Coach Mike Gardner was disappointed his team didn’t expand their early lead.
“We had our opportunities to really take control of it,” he said.
After a three-and-out following the opening kickoff, the Spires punted to the Bluejays, who set up shop at the Spires 45-yard line. Three plays later quarterback Curry Parham connected with Zach Johnson for a 39-yard touchdown pass. Austin Smith’s kick made it 7-0.
One play after the kickoff, Spire quarterback Drew Cortez’s pass was picked off by Kaleb Neuschafer, who returned it to the USM 21-yard line. Four plays later, Parham broke off tackle and scored from 2 yards out. Smith’s kick made it 14-0.
But the season of giving wasn’t over just yet. On the fourth play of the Spires’ next possession, Evan Sprayberry recovered a Spires fumble at the USM 30-yard line. Three plays later, Drevion Cooper swept the left end for a 13-yard score and a 21-0 Tabor lead with 7:31 left in the first quarter.
The potential for a blowout began to fizzle when Smith’s 44-yard field-goal attempt—following a shanked USM punt—had plenty of distance, but the ball ricocheted off the left upright.
Neither team scored again until Cortez found Andre Long for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 3:56 left in the half. Tabor responded with a seven-play, 55-yard drive with Parham scoring from 10 yards out with 1:12 left before intermission. Smith’s kick gave Tabor a 28-7 halftime lead.
The second half started with a Tabor turnover on its opening drive. Parham’s pass to Johnson was picked off by Spires defender Nicholas Holmes in the end zone.
Saint Mary narrowed the deficit to 18 points with a field goal at the 10:28 mark of the third quarter. But Tabor responded in kind with Smith’s 19-yard field goal on its next possession.
The Spires got to within two touchdowns late in the third quarter when Cortez tossed a 16-yard scoring pass for a 31-17 margin at the 1:39 mark.
With the breezy south wind once again behind their backs in the fourth quarter, Tabor put together two more scoring drives.
The first one culminated with a 16-yard run by Drevion Cooper 45 seconds into the quarter. The final score came when Ontre’Von Cooper skirted the right end for a 22-yard touchdown and the 44-17 final score.
Both teams finished with more than 400 yards total offense. Tabor’s 403 rushing yards accounted for the bulk of its 488 yards, while USM picked up 350 of its 435 yards through the air.
“I felt like defensively we played exceptional at times, and then in the second half we just got flat and our pass coverage wasn’t what it normally is,” Gardner said.
The coach lauded aspects of his team’s offensive performance, particularly the play of his quarterback.
“I was really pleased with how Curry ran the option,” he said. “I thought he did an exceptional job and making his reads—and doing it both from under center and in shotgun.”
Coming—The win boosts Tabor’s record to 3-0 in the KCAC and 3-1 for the season, while USM slipped to 0-3 and 1-4. This week, Tabor travels to Sterling College for a showdown with the 19th-ranked Bulldogs.
“They’re very good at what they do,” Gardner said. “Their defense is better than it was last year. Their offense may not be as explosive, but it’s just as efficient. They run the football very well and throw it well enough that they can hurt you if you’re not assignment-sound.
“If we’re going to do anything Saturday we have to do a good job making sure we make them one-dimensional offensively—and that is to take away the run game.”