Faced with a struggling offense which replaced its starting quarterback with another rookie, and coming off one of its least effective outings in two years last week, the Missouri Valley College defense turned in a performance reminiscent of the type which led it to being No. 1 in the NAIA against the run a year ago during a 25-14 Heart of America Conference victory Saturday at William Jewell.
The Vikings limited the home team to a net of minus-44 rushing yards and recorded five sacks, due in large part to the improved health of junior defensive end Larry Wentzel, the conference's "player of the year" in 2006.
"He really gave a spark to our pass rush," remarked MVC head coach Paul Troth, who kept the offensive game plan simple by feeding junior tailback Robert Holmes 33 times for 135 yards and four touchdowns.
After suffering its first HAAC loss since '05 a week ago, 10th-ranked Valley's margin for error in defense of its crown was slim -- and knocking off the Cardinals, one of the league's three unbeaten teams, was critical.
"It was really important to get back on track," noted all-America senior guard Kris Vasquez. "One loss is too many."
The Vikings scored early on Holmes' 11-yard run, but the first of three extra points missed by senior Joe Park -- who converted 42 of 47 PATs a year ago -- made the situation precarious.
They fell behind 7-6 before the first quarter was over when senior Logan Minnick intercepted a pass from redshirt freshman Chris White -- starting in place of junior Adam Mares, who hurt his ankle during his debut two weeks ago and struggled the following game -- and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown.
Valley regained the lead on the final drive of the first half, an 11-play, 53-yard series ending with a 2-yard Holmes plunge. On its first possession of the second half, Holmes' 1-yard TD run capped a 12-play, 54-yard drive to make it 19-7.
"We were breaking in a new quarterback and were trying to get the ball moving on the ground," Vasquez explained. "The O-line was working together."
However, the Cardinals (2-1, 2-1 HAAC) caught a break on the first play of the fourth quarter, when White's high pass went off senior Eric Brown's hands and was picked off by senior Zach Cunningham to set up senior Benny Palmer's 17-yard scoring strike to senior Evan Adams.
With a chance to catch up, though, Jewell's offense couldn't manufacture anything on its own. The next two series were three-and-out, and then senior Rich Beltram recovered a fumble at the Cardinals' 21-yard line. Five plays later Holmes scored from a yard out and senior Aubrey Smith intercepted Palmer's last pass of the game.
"This is a team," declared senior linebacker Marquette Floyd, who contributed two sacks and a fumble recovery to set up Valley's first touchdown. "If one side is weak, the other side has to be strong. We had the offense's back."
If the Vikings (2-1, 2-1) have yet to find their '06 form on offense, Troth is quick to note that the season is young yet.
"Everybody remembers how you operated at the end of the year, but it takes time to develop that," said Troth, whose team hosts Evangel this week. "I don't think we're that much different than we were early last year."