SEWARD, Neb. – Down 14 early in the third quarter, the 21st-ranked Concordia University football team turned to Trey Barnes and the defense in an effort to turn the tide on senior day. It worked. The Bulldogs stormed back while using a flurry of big plays on their way to a 31-28 victory inside Bulldog Stadium on a sunny and breezy Saturday afternoon.
The win appropriately capped the eight-year head coaching tenure of Vance Winter, who will step away from his post. The final season for Winter produced an overall mark of 7-3 and conference record of 5-3. No Concordia football team has posted a higher winning percentage since 2001.
“It shows a ton of character,” Winter said of the comeback. “I thought we were playing really tight in the first half. There were some plays out there we just didn’t quite make. We got a big response with the safety. Scoring on D was just a huge energizer for our team. This group weathers the storm. They keep fighting.”
In his final game as a Bulldog, Barnes put on a show in front of the hometown fans. The Seward High School product scored a touchdown on a 16-yard fumble return, forced a fumble on a sack and totaled three tackles for loss. Wait, there’s more. He booted punts of 75 and 69 yards while continually flipping the field. Then late in the game, he just about sealed it with an interception on a pass he got his hands on before the ball fell to the ground.
The eighth touchdown of Barnes’ career came soon after Hastings (4-7, 1-7 GPAC) failed to move the ball out of the shadow of its own goalpost. Leading 21-7, the Broncos saw their lead reduced by two points early in the third quarter when Patrick Skwara tackled Tahj Willingham for a safety. On the very next Hastings possession, Skwara met Willingham with a vicious hit that jarred the ball loose, allowing Barnes the chance to find the end zone.
“It’s a blessing to be honest,” Barnes said. “We have so many good people that I play next to. They make those plays possible.”
With 3:47 left in the third quarter, Concordia took the lead for good. It marched 76 yards on eight plays with the final one being a 10-yard Riley Wiltfong touchdown run. The two-point try was then converted when Jackson Hall found Jared Garcia on a reverse pass. Suddenly the Bulldogs led 24-21 thanks to a big third quarter effort.
Hastings showed some resiliency itself in battling back from a 31-21 disadvantage. Bronco quarterback Jason Gaines delivered a 12-yard touchdown pass to Willingham to complete a 51-yard scoring drive with 4:47 left in the fourth quarter. The Broncos then got one final possession while trailing 31-28. Hastings moved the ball 37 yards to its own 49, but it came up empty on fourth-and-one when Skwara brought the heat and forced an incomplete pass to finally put the game on ice.
Though Concordia allowed 399 yards to the Hastings offense, it found a way to overcome with big plays on both sides of the ball.
“This wasn’t the Bulldog team, especially defensively, that we’ve seen all year,” Barnes said of the early struggles. “We were kind of flat footed coming out. We fixed it up, talked about it halftime and got some momentum plays to get us going.”
The passing game sputtered much of the day for the Bulldogs, but quarterback TJ Austin electrified the crowd with his 65-yard touchdown run that bumped Concordia’s lead to 10 less than a minute into the fourth quarter. The quarterback duo of Austin and Wiltfong combined to run for 128 yards and two touchdowns on 19 attempts.
Once again, senior Bryce Collins churned out the tough yards on the ground. He rushed 18 times for 70 yards and a touchdown in his final game as a Bulldog. The native of Boerne, Texas, ended his career with more than 3,500 rushing yards (second in program history) and 37 total touchdowns. But this day was not about stats. The seniors wanted to win not just because it was their last chance as Bulldogs, but also to honor Winter.
“It was very important,” Collins said. “Coach puts in all the work and effort like we do during the offseason to make us better. Leaving him with 7-3 for his last coaching game at Concordia is incredible.”
Skwara’s big day featured 11 tackles (two for loss) and the aforementioned forced fumble. Corner Tarence Roby came up to make 10 tackles while linebacker Kordell Glause added eight tackles – two for loss.
The Broncos piled up 237 yards rushing. Jake Fowler led the ground attack with 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Barnes, Collins and the rest of the senior group that includes standout linebacker Michael Hedlund completed their careers with four-year records of 25-17. It’s a senior class that Winter was proud to take the field with together, one final time.
“They committed to a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 2001,” Winter said. “They bought into everything about our program and everything about our school. I couldn’t be more proud of that group and what they’re about. They’re going to be incredibly successful people.”
Winter went 41-44 over his eight seasons as head coach at Concordia. The program will have a new leader when it kicks off the 2017 season next fall.
With the win, the Bulldogs completed their first undefeated home season since 2000. Concordia won all five games played inside Bulldog Stadium in 2016.