STERLING, Kan. – Entering 2014 with some of their biggest question marks uncharacteristically coming on the defensive side, the Bulldog football team kept a pair of the NAIA’s top skill players at bay for most of Saturday’s season opener. Despite an injury-riddled roster, Concordia exercised control virtually the entire way in pulling a 21-15 road upset of 15th-ranked Sterling College, the defending Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference champion.
Retooling a unit that last season ranked in the top 10 of the NAIA in total and scoring defense, defensive coordinator Patrick Daberkow’s group limited Sterling to 295 yards as Concordia won its opening game for the second-straight season.
“This is one of the biggest character wins we’ve had because of all the adversity and injuries we’ve gone through during camp,” sixth-year head coach Vance Winter said. “I’m really proud of how they hung together and fought. We just fought and competed against a really good team. Sterling played really hard and was a physical group.”
Exciting senior quarterback Von Thomas had a hand in all three Bulldog touchdowns, running for two and throwing for another. His four-yard scoring run on a fourth and goal in the first quarter staked Concordia to a 7-6 lead and it never looked back. The Bulldogs went up 21-6 with their run of 21 unanswered points. Included in that spurt was freshman receiver Logan Otte’s first career touchdown – a 23-yard toss from Thomas.
Fellow freshman receiver Jared Garcia was Thomas’ favorite target on this night. The native of Humble, Texas, hauled in six passes for 62 yards to lead the Bulldogs. Through the air, Thomas connected on 13 of 25 pass attempts for 167 yards. He ran 13 times for 43 yards for an offense that managed 284 total yards. Bryce Collins topped the ground attack with 70 yards on 18 carries. He also caught four passes for 68 yards.
While Thomas made sure the Bulldogs finished drives with touchdowns, defense and special teams were the big story for Concordia. The Sterling duo of quarterback Reggie Langford and All-American running back Antonio Bray, which combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards last season, found the sledding rough against a fast, physical and young Concordia defense. Langford and Bray combined for 75 rushing yards on 29 carries on Saturday.
“Our defensive group did a nice job. They had a great game plan,” Winter said. “They battled through adversity. (Corner Adam) Vogt and (safety Tait) Sibbel both had to leave the game. Our young guys really stepped up and had a great game.”
While the Bulldog run game sputtered for much of the day against an improved Warrior rush defense, Concordia grinded out crucial yards on the final possession and ran out the clock. The Bulldogs piled up 42 yards on the ground and picked up three first downs to chew up the remaining time on their final possession.
“I’m proud of how our offensive group stuck with it,” Winter said. “That was a great finish to the game. We struggled running the ball most of the game and that has to be our bread and butter. But it sure was nice to finish it off like that.”
Sterling struck first with Reggie Langford’s four-yard touchdown run with 6:08 left in the first quarter. Plagued by missed extra points, Warrior kicker Eddie Juarez had his first PAT blocked by Kyle Rakow. He missed another point after late in the third following Langford’s touchdown pass to Dentton Hudspeth that got Sterling within 21-12.
Juarez did come through with a 34-yard field goal with roughly 5:30 remaining in the game, making it a one score game at 21-15. The Warriors failed to get the ball back as Concordia iced the season-opening win.
The outcome may have seemed unlikely considering the Bulldogs entered the game minus key starters in offensive guard Josh Powell, tight end Josh Slechta, linebacker Michael Carroll and safety Drew Baxter – all ruled out due to camp injuries. It got even worse when Vogt and Sibbel were sidelined and Otte missed the second half.
With Powell out, Concordia shuffled its offensive line. Winter complimented Theo Sheridan for his ability to adjust to playing guard. Starter Ben Balduc also shifted roles.
“We didn’t even know who we had left,” Winter said. “We were just sitting there at halftime not knowing what we had. We had guys hurt all over. It was a physical game. There was a lot of hitting out there.”
Defensively, Concordia got one sack apiece from Geoff Kleinshmit, Sam Noonan and Rakow. Noonan, a freshman defensive lineman from Eagle, Neb., “was all over the place” as Winter put it. Linebacker Clay Mauro topped the team with nine total tackles, including 3.5 for loss.
The Bulldogs begin conference play next Saturday when they head west to take on Hastings College at 1 p.m. Last season Concordia defeated the Broncos 26-21 in the conference opener for both teams. Since the GPAC formed in 2000, Hastings has won 10 of the 14 meetings with the Bulldogs. The Broncos are off to a 1-0 start after pummeling Kansas Wesleyan University by a 61-21 final on Saturday.