It doesn't always overcome dropped passes, poor throws, missed tackles and blown assignments -- all of which plagued the third-ranked Missouri Valley College football team Saturday during its 28-23 home loss to Graceland, ending an 11-game Heart of America Conference win streak.
"Very frustrating night," admitted MVC head coach Paul Troth. "We just couldn't seem to maintain anything with any consistency."
The Vikings demonstrated character during their comeback in the season opener to beat No. 19 Benedictine in triple overtime, and that didn't disappear in a week's time. They battled to the very end, which came on sophomore Martin Ciccolini's interception in the end zone with 22.3 seconds left -- a mere 93 seconds after junior James Thomas picked off junior Adam Mares' low-trajectory pass to end a Valley drive which had reached the Yellowjackets' 7-yard line.
"We're not executing the passing game consistently," Troth conceded following an 8-for-26, 113-yard performance by Mares -- who missed much of the week's practice because of injuries. "It's a matter of getting things in sync."
Lest the Vikings' offense take the brunt of the blame for not coming up with a big play in crunch time, the defense didn't live up to its billing by giving up 390 yards -- 128 more than it allowed any HAAC opponent a year ago -- with the last two Graceland touchdowns coming from its own end of the field.
The 'Jackets' game-winning touchdown was typical of Valley's defensive effort. Under pressure, sophomore quarterback Garrett Graves dumped the ball off to junior Jerome Messam in the backfield. Messam shed two tacklers and cut to the outside, showing sprinter's speed -- impressive for a 6-foot-4, 250-pound back -- as he dashed 66 yards.
"There's a reason why he was rated No. 1 in the country" at running back as a transfer from North Dakota State School of Science, Troth said. Messam rushed for 114 yards on the lunging Viking tacklers and added 95 reception yards.
Messam's 49-yard run opened the scoring in the first quarter, but Valley looked to be gaining control when it scored 17 straight points -- on catches of 20 yards by junior Javion Jones and 18 by senior Eric Brown, plus a 44-yard field goal from senior Joe Park.
The Vikings opened the second half with an impressive five-play, 65-yard drive to take a 17-7 lead, but Graceland answered with a nine-play, 73-yard series capped by Graves' 31-yard pass to junior Tyler Stewart.
A 47-yard kick return by junior Jonathan Nunez set Valley up at the GU 42, with junior Robert Holmes carrying the ball six straight times for the remainder of the yardage. A blocked extra point made it 23-14, Valley.
To answer, Graves went deep to junior Julian Bond for a 67-yard TD to keep the 'Jackets (2-0, 2-0 HAAC) in contention heading into the final frame.
"We've done it two weeks in a row now: let a team hang around when we had a chance to put them away," Troth remarked. "We were in position to make plays a couple of times, and we just didn't do it."
Considering that the league's two other ranked teams also have losses, the setback wasn't necessarily devastating to the Vikings' hopes of defending their title -- or reaching the NAIA playoffs. However, if Troth sought to determine the direction Valley (1-1, 1-1) would go between the first and second weeks, it wasn't encouraging.
"I wanted to see improvement in some of the mistakes we made," he said. "We did in some areas, but we have to clean up some things.
"We can still be a very good football team," Troth declared.