WINFIELD, Kan. – The Concordia University football team weathered a rough and mistake-plagued start to its season-opening victory at Southwestern College on Saturday night. The visiting Bulldogs shook off a 10-0 deficit, wore down the Moundbuilders (0-2) and finished with 31 unanswered points for a 31-10 victory to ring in 2015.
While its offense sputtered throughout the first half, the swarming Concordia defense kept the game well within reach. The unit forced four Southwestern fumbles while allowing just 78 yards of total offense. It marked the third-straight season that head coach Vance Winter’s program opened up with a road win.
“There wasn’t any panic,” Winter said of the shaky start. “There was just frustration. Our leaders stepped up and stayed confident. Our defense came up big with stop after stop and I thought Garrett (Folchert) provided a spark.
“Southwestern did some nice things. I thought they had a real solid plan. They have a good defensive group that ran around.”
The Bulldog offense, which operated under the direction of two quarterbacks (starter TJ Austin and backup Folchert) finally got humming in the fourth quarter. Buoyed by several nifty punt returns from junior Bryce Collins, including one for 32 yards, Concordia cashed in on fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 40, 41 and 64 yards.
The Bulldogs took their first lead at the 13:34 mark of the final stanza when Garrett Folchert rifled his second touchdown pass of the day to Carey Harrison, who caught the ball at around the 15-yard line and eluded defenders on his way to a 34-yard scoring play. That strike came on the heels of a Nolan Schroeder strip and fumble recovery. On the next drive, Austin took over as signal caller and found Trae Owens for a 29-yard touchdown connection with 11:24 left.
“We knew both were going to get reps,” Winter said of his quarterbacks. “Both deserved reps. They’ve done a nice job throughout fall camp. They have such different skillsets. What’s great is that they have supported each other.”
Concordia’s hounding defense, spurred by Saturday’s leading tackler in safety LeDontrae Gooden (seven tackles), then forced another three-and-out. On the ensuing possession, the Bulldogs ate 5:11 off the clock on a 10-play, 64-yard touchdown drive capped by a Demarques Saulberry five-yard scamper over the goal line. The sequence that ended with Concordia leading 31-10, featured running plays exclusively.
While breaking in four new starters on the offensive line, the Bulldogs got the running game on track in the second half. Collins topped Concordia with 60 rushing yards on 13 carries. Saulsberry ran seven times for 47 yards and Austin covered 42 yards on 12 attempts.
The dominant second half eased the frustrations of a rough first quarter. The season got off to an inauspicious start when Qyaylan Clay lost a fumble on the opening kickoff. The Moundbuilders recovered at the Bulldog 22 and ended up setting for a 19-yard Mario Esparza field goal.
A miscue also led to Southwestern’s only touchdown. Austin’s first pass attempt of the season was picked off by Justin Owens and returned 36 yards to the Concordia one-yard-line. On the next play Moundbuilder quarterback Christian Gordon found the end zone to make it a 10-point spread less than four minutes after kickoff.
The Bulldog defense came to the rescue.
“I like how they looked,” Winter said. “They looked dominant in every way. Any creases that were open closed in a hurry. We were very physical tackling and didn’t give them any cushion. I know they’re offense has struggled a little, but any time you hold a team to that few of yards it’s a great performance.”
Folchert, a senior from Ogallala, Neb., notched his first career touchdown pass late in the first quarter. After Concordia recovered Dalton Swindale’s muffed punt, Folchert capitalized on the very next play with a 20-yard touchdown toss to tight end Seth Fitzke, shrinking the Bulldog deficit to 10-7.
In a first half marred by errors on both sides, Concordia’s Michael Hedlund set up the tying score when he blocked Esparza's punt, which went out of bounds at the Southwestern 25. Kicker Adam Meirose then nailed a 28-yard field goal after the Bulldog drive stalled at the 11.
In a contest that saw little offensive output through three quarters, the work of Concordia senior punter Sandy Fisher proved crucial. He booted eight punts for an average of 39.8 yards and downed two kicks inside the opposition’s 20.
Defensively, the Bulldogs suffocated the Moundbuilders to the tune of only 1.5 yards per play. Concordia outgained Southwestern 311-78. Gordon completed just 7 of 19 passes for 33 yards. In comparison, Folchert went 6-for-11 for 74 yards and two scores. Austin connected on 8 of 15 passes for 68 yards and one score.
Winter said conditioning was a key to its 21-0 advantage in the fourth quarter. Said the seventh-year head coach, “I think our conditioning took over. That’s a big thing to mention. What (strength and conditioning) Coach (Todd) Berner has done was so evident in the fourth quarter.”
Concordia also won season openers on the road in 2013 (30-15 over William Jewell College) and in 2014 (21-15 over Sterling College).
The Bulldogs will make their 2015 home debut next Saturday when Hastings (1-0) pays a visit to Bulldog Stadium. The Broncos defeated Bethel College (Kan.), 33-29, in their season opener on Saturday. Hastings went 6-4 overall in 2014.