Vikings upend No. 3 MidAmerica Nazarene
The way the students stormed Gregg-Mitchell Field, one may have thought the Missouri Valley College football team had won the Heart of America Conference title Saturday instead of a mere league opener.
However, any victory over defending champion MidAmerica Nazarene is cause for celebration in the land of Vikings, who knocked off the NAIA's third-ranked club, 26-21.
"Nothing got decided. There's still a lot of football left to play," remarked MVC head coach Paul Troth, who nonetheless understood what an emotional victory it was for a Valley squad pounded by the Pioneers last year and nipped by a last-second field goal in 2009. "Our guys remember that and felt like they stole it."
Like Frank Sinatra, the Vikings did it their way -- with a pounding running attack and big plays by a defense which came up with five takeaways and a fourth-quarter goal-line stand.
The early scoring was largely from big plays, starting with freshman Jonathan Hicks' 65-yard punt return for Valley, a week after he had a similar one wiped out by a mistaken penalty. Two plays later, MidAmerica answered with an 80-yard sprint by sophomore Greg Gates.
A deflected pass picked off by freshman Matt Cobb set up senior Tyler Herl's 40-yard touchdown strike to junior Austin Conyers for a 14-7 Pioneer lead.
As the second quarter began, the Vikings began to move the ball on the ground. Sophomore Lorenzo Dennard went 20 yards on a quarterback keeper to set up freshman Kaleb Brasfield's 24-yard field goal and on the next possession, the result of junior Phil Kraft's fumble recovery, Dennard ran for 12 and 10 yards during a nine-play, 44-yard drive capped by sophomore Rahfee McClee's 3-yard rumble across the goal line.
The Pioneers threatened near the end of the first half, but sophomore Tyler Davis closed ground to make a leaping grab in the back of the end zone for his second interception of the game, and NAIA-high fourth of the young season.
"They were trying to double-move us all game," Davis explained. "Instead of driving on the three-step, I laid off. I was able to get it because my arms are long."
Valley was fully in the smash-mouth mode during the second half, getting all of its yards running while scoring on its first two drives of the third period. Freshman Nijel Daw gained 40 yards on six carries before sophomore Keith O'Neal ran the ball in from 14 yards out on the first series and O'Neal picked up 27 yards on four runs before Brasfield booted a 25-yard attempt to make it 26-14.
"My offensive line, they played amazing," O'Neal remarked. "They gave me holes and I just had to hang on to the ball."
MidAmerica was able to sustain a drive once it got out of its own way, having been called for five chop-block penalties during the first three quarters. A 34-yard Conyers catch and personal foul against MVC's defense gave the Pioneers first and goal at the 5-yard line.
An incomplete pass, stop at the 3 by junior Tripp Thomas, senior Adam Maher's tackle behind the line and fourth-down sack by senior Richard Wick kept MNU off the board.
"That was the turning point, I believe," Davis said of the Vikings' goal-line stand.
A fumble deep in Valley territory gave the Pioneers new life. Two runs for 14 yards by sophomore James Tillman closed the margin to five points with over six minutes remaining in the game, and MidAmerica (1-1, 1-1 HAAC) got the ball back with more than four minutes to go.
However, senior Wayne Williams picked off a deep sideline pass on the Pioneers' first play and O'Neal ran for a pair of first downs as Valley chewed up the clock to the final gun.
"We were hammering them pretty good," Troth said about the Vikings' 275-yard rushing attack. "We got a couple of penalties and that took us off-schedule on our calls."
O'Neal had his second 100-yard rushing game of the season, noting that "the team stayed positive and committed to our game."
The challenge now for 12th-ranked Valley (2-0, 1-0) is to maintain its intensity through the balance of a regular season which still has eight games remaining. That won't be easy considering the emotion which went into this one.
"We were the underdogs," Davis said. "I wanted to beat them as much as the seniors did."
The Vikings need to be as fired up Saturday at Avila, a far less imposing foe.