More than any other game, the late-season loss to then second-ranked Morningside proved Concordia football can compete on a national scale. Up against a team that ran roughshod through the GPAC, the Bulldogs drove the ball inside the Mustang 30 with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
While Concordia eventually fell victim to the only GPAC squad still alive in the NAIA playoffs, the effort was part of another solid season for seventh-year head coach Vance Winter’s program. Behind the nation’s No. 4 defense (279.6), Concordia went 6-4 overall while blasting league rivals Hastings (28-3) and Nebraska Wesleyan (47-14).
In perhaps its most impressive display of toughness and character, Concordia shook off three-straight frustrating losses, and even with no playoff berth at stake, it rocked Briar Cliff, 48-0, to close the season.
“They were a fun group to coach,” Winter said. “There was very good leadership on our football team. The biggest disappointment was that we didn’t accomplish all the goals that were set. We had high goals. I thought we had a really good team, we just came up a little bit short in certain games. With all things being said, our guys really competed and fought. When you watch our team play it’s a highly-competitive, high-energy, hard-hitting and physical team.”
After surrendering 384.7 yards per game in 2014, the Concordia defense returned to the dominance it displayed in 2013 when All-American Darnell Woods punished opposing offensive skills players. This season junior defensive end Trey Barnes emerged as a star, thriving at his third different collegiate position. Barnes collected 10 sacks for a unit that also got big performances from defensive backs Tarence Roby and LeDontrae Gooden (both transfers) and linebackers Michael Hedlund and Tait Sibbel.
Coordinator Patrick Daberkow’s second top-five defense in three years limited six of its opponents below 300 total yards. Hedlund eclipsed 100 tackles. Gooden tied for the GPAC lead in interceptions. Roby shut down his side of the field. Barnes and Sibbel lived in opposing backfields. Clint Gardels surfaced with the best game of his career versus Briar Cliff. With its agile defense running around, Concordia had a shot to win every time out.
“I’m really proud of how improved a lot of our returning guys were from 2014 to 2015,” Winter said. “It’s a big credit to the coaching staff and those guys individually. They all really improved as players throughout the offseason and spring ball. I knew after spring ball, defensively, we were going to be a pretty good group. Then we added some pieces. Getting LeDontrae and Cory (Evans Jr.) in the secondary was big. There were some guys that came in and really helped our football team.”
While the defense shined throughout the season, Bulldog fans were also treated to big plays from the offense’s stable of skill players such as running back Bryce Collins and receiver Jared Garcia. The duo combined for 18 total touchdowns in 2015. Both earned all-conference honors during a season in which Concordia used three different starting quarterbacks and had to replace four starters from the 2014 offensive line.
Collins has amassed 2,666 rushing yards and 3,637 all-purpose yards over three seasons as a Bulldog. Meanwhile, Garcia is only five touchdown catches off the program’s career record (24 by Ross Wurdeman) with two seasons remaining. They just might be the best running back-receiver tandem in program history.
“Bryce and Jared are very good players,” Winter said. “It’s a testament to Jared that he still was a first team all-conference guy with three different quarterbacks throwing him the ball. He had some big games. Then Bryce is our most consistent player. Week-in and week-out you have an expectation of what he’s going to bring to the table. He had a great year.”
Collins and Garcia were constants in the midst of a quarterback carousel. Senior Garrett Folchert and sophomores TJ Austin and Riley Wiltfong each started at least one game as signal caller. Just when Austin was playing his best, he went down with a season-ending injury. Folchert, who battled a high-ankle sprain, took most of the snaps and threw for 1,087 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Folchert’s heroics at Midland are likely to provide one of the most lasting memories of the 2015 season. The Warriors struggled to a 1-10 record in 2015, but they nearly pulled an upset of Concordia with a spirited effort in their homecoming game in Fremont. Playing through pain, Folchert led the Bulldogs back from a 35-14 third-quarter deficit by tossing two touchdown passes to Garcia and then the game-tying score to Brandon Luetchens on a playground-like effort from the Ogallala, Neb., native. The Bulldogs celebrated in overtime when Collins scored the game winner on a fourth-down run.
Nothing went right in the first half at Midland. The Bulldogs could have folded – but it’s not who they were or ever will be under Winter.
“That was just a crazy game,” Winter said. “Midland did play really well. They made a lot of really good plays. We were able to weather some injuries throughout the game. Garrett made some incredible throws in stepping up and making plays that weren’t even part of the read. We showed so much toughness. I think that’s the one thing I love about this group. That extends from the leadership of our senior class.”
Concordia will move on without a senior class that included starting linebackers in Sibbel, Clay Mauro and Brandon Namuth and the team’s top offensive lineman in Ben Balduc. However, most of the other key names will be back, including every starting member of the Bulldogs’ ball-hawking secondary.
There will be more experience at quarterback and along the offensive line to go with game-breaking skill players and first team all-conference tight end Seth Fitzke. Better fortune injury-wise and a similar tough-minded approach in 2016 could help Concordia compete for the playoff berth that has eluded it since 2001.
“I think expectations are really high,” Winter said. “They were high going into this year and they will be high coming into next year. We feel like we have a very good group of guys – guys that are committed and focused. Nine months is a long time to sit here and wait, but we’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then. I think this is a group that can meet the challenge and reach our goals.”