What appeared to be a blowout-in-the-making early in the game morphed into regret and frustration as Tabor let a 21-3 second-quarter lead slip through its fingers in a 23-21 loss at Sterling College.
The game was billed as the showdown of the KCAC’s nationally ranked teams, with Tabor ranked 16th and Sterling 17th in the NAIA.
The Bluejays sent a strong message at the start, scoring on their first possession on a 21-yard touchdown run by Ontre’Von Cooper at the 9:08 mark of the opening quarter.
Late in the quarter, the Bluejay defense blocked a Sterling punt and advanced the football to the Warrior 9-yard line. Tabor needed one play to cash in a second touchdown: Cooper swept the left end and into the end zone.
Sterling got on the board in the opening minute of the second quarter when Mike Winston nailed a 26-yard field goal at 14:02.
Tabor responded by marching 68 yards in five plays—a huge one being a 45-yard pass from Curry Parham to Skyler Valencia—to set up a 6-yard scoring run by Drevion Cooper two plays later.
When Austin Smith kicked his third successful extra-point of the quarter, the Bluejays led, 21-3.
But from that point on, momentum began teetering ever so gradually in Sterling’s direction.
The Warriors responded to Tabor’s third touchdown with one of their own on their next possession: a 22-yard run by their elusive quarterback, Eric Butler, with 8:22 to play in the half.
Sterling struck again on their next possession, launching an 80-yard, 12-play drive to shrink Tabor’s lead to 21-17 when Darryl Terrell swept the left end for a 1-yard score with 53.8 seconds left in the half.
Strangely enough, two teams who combined for 38 points in the first half would not score again until the final minute of the second half.
Sterling finally got into the end zone with 31.7 seconds left, but the apparent touchdown pass from Butler to Terrell was called back because of an ineligible-player penalty.
With Sterling resuming its drive at the Tabor 16-yard line, the Bluejays stopped a fourth-and-4 play with 3.8 seconds showing on the clock. When Butler’s pass fell incomplete, it appeared the Bluejays had dodged a bullet after all.
Not so. Tabor was called for defensive holding, moving the ball to the 7-yard line.
With no time showing on the clock, Butler threw unsuccessfully to Raphael Williams in the end zone, and it appeared again that Tabor had survived.
Again, not so. The Bluejays were called for pass interference, giving Sterling another chance to score, this time from three yards out.
Terrell did just that on a quick sweep for the winning score, igniting a celebration by Sterling fans and vocal consternation by Bluejay players and fans.
Tabor coach Mike Gardner, obviously frustrated by the debacle, told his players in the post-game huddle that the officials did not cost them the victory. Gardner said his team lost the game because they allowed themselves to be put in a position to be hurt by penalties at the of the game.
Sterling ended up with 405 yards total offense, with 209 coming through the air and 196 on the ground. Butler accounted for 152 rushing yards on 22 carries and threw for 209 on 23-of-40 passing.
Tabor finished with 300 yards, 148 on the ground and 152 through the air. Ontre’Von Cooper led the ground attack with 112 yards on 22 carries.
Coming—Tabor will host Southwestern College (1-3, 1-5) Saturday at Joel Wiens Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.