SEWARD, Neb. – The final minutes of Saturday’s GPAC football clash between Concordia and Hastings gave fans at a jam-packed Bulldog Stadium all the drama they could ask for – and then some. Sudden despair turned into a jubilant victory for the host Bulldogs, who rode the roller coaster to a 26-21 triumph over the visiting Broncos under the lights on a perfect September evening.
After Concordia (2-0, 1-0 GPAC) saw a 20-7 fourth-quarter lead evaporate, the Bulldogs came through with a clutch nine-play, 63-yard drive to regain the advantage. Senior receiver Jeff Balz raced 14 yards untouched to pay dirt on a reverse for the game-winning touchdown with :59 left to play.
The Bulldog defense forced a turnover on downs on the ensuing possession to seal an emotional win on a night in which former Concordia football player Derek “Rowdy” Rodine was honored in a home-opening tribute. Rowdy, a defensive lineman from 2008-2011, died in late July as a result of injuries suffered in a car accident.
This was a Concordia win Rowdy could be proud of.
“I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it,” Bulldog head coach Vance Winter said of the win. “Our guys showed a lot of character.
“I’m very proud of them. We really showed a lot of character and there was a lot of relief in the locker room afterwards.”
A rash of turnovers forced by an opportunistic Bulldog defense emerged as one of the key storylines of the game. Concordia picked off three of Hastings quarterback Matt Overmiller’s passes and also recovered a fumble. The Bulldogs ended the night plus-four in turnovers, a week after finishing plus-three in turnover margin at William Jewell.
“I thought our defense really played well,” Winter said. “Hastings is a good offensive team. Defensively we limited a lot of big plays there until the end and created some turnovers. Offensively we didn’t capitalize on enough things. We had some opportunities with short fields and didn’t capitalize on it.”
Senior linebacker Drew Baxter led the charge for a dogged defensive effort that limited Hastings to 35 yards rushing on 21 carries. Baxter was active all night, recording nine total tackles, including a sack, while recovering a fumble.
“I’m real excited to see the effort from the defense,” Baxter said. “Guys really showed great character from start to finish. We had contributors from freshmen to seniors – kind of all over the board with the turnovers. We showed a lot of heart and a lot of discipline tonight.”
The Bulldogs persevered in spite of a stunning comeback by Hastings. The Broncos pulled within 20-14 when backup quarterback AJ Palazzolo found Tevor Bohn for a 34-yard touchdown hook up with 6:16 left in the game. Hastings then took the lead with its second blocked punt of the night.
A low snap gave the Bronco rush time to bat Joe Marshall’s punt into the end zone, where Stewart Washington scooped the ball up for a score. Suddenly Hastings led 21-20 with 3:23 to play.
Bulldog quarterback Von Thomas then took charge in leading the game-winning drive. He completed a 21-yard pass to Brian Serra and ran for 23 of his 89 yards on the drive. That set up a second-and-four from the Hastings 14-yard line, where offensive coordinator Curran White dialed up the reverse to Balz. The play resulted in a touchdown much like the one Balz scored last week against William Jewell.
Balz also caught an eight-yard touchdown toss from Thomas in the first quarter. That play allowed the Bulldogs to cash in on a Cody Hawk interception of a tipped pass that pin-balled around until the Concordia defensive lineman finally controlled it at the Hastings 33.
After the Broncos tied it 7-7 early in the third quarter, Concordia built a 20-7 lead thanks to Thomas’ 27-yard touchdown scamper in the third stanza and then a 24-yard Thomas scoring strike to a wide open Jerad Leifeld with 11:33 left in the fourth.
Thomas finished 16-for-31 with 145 yards and two touchdowns through the air. His 89 rushing yards led a Bulldog ground attack that came up with 248 yards on 56 attempts. Winter again got solid production from his freshmen backs – Trey Barnes (20 carries for 70 yards) and Bryce Collins (14 rushes for 79 yards).
Sophomore safety Tait Sibbel and sophomore linebacker Clay Mauro also came up with an interception apiece. Mauro’s interception led to the Leifeld touchdown seven plays later.
The Bulldogs finished with 393 total yards to Hastings’ 269. The Broncos got 234 of their yards in the passing game.
After losing several close games last season, Winter’s program has appeared to take another huge step forward. The game-winning drive could prove to be one that defines the season.
“Last year, the second game of the season we had the same opportunity against Dakota Wesleyan,” Winter said. “And we didn’t finish the deal. We had the same opportunity – the same exact kind of thing. This year we did (finish).”
The Bulldogs will play their first GPAC road game of the season next Saturday when they travel to Fremont, Neb., to take on Midland (2-0, 1-0 GPAC) at 1 p.m. The Warriors knocked off Dordt, 21-18, in what was also a conference opener for both teams on Saturday.
“I’m really looking forward to Midland,” Baxter said after Saturday’s victory. “That’s always a great game for us – always a great challenge, a formidable foe there. We’re going to go and get back to the grinder. We’re going to have a short celebration for this one and go get back to work.”