By Nathan Gerdts
It’s always important in ballroom dancing to begin each dance with a correct first step. If Missouri Valley College’s football season is like a waltz, the good news is there is still a lot of music left in the song.
A highly anticipated season-opening match-up against eight-ranked Tabor (Kan.) College in the finale of the KCAC/HAAC Challenge did not go the way the number-seven Vikings would have liked, with MVC committing six turnovers and falling 27-17.
“I’m disappointed,” said Valley head coach Paul Troth. “We played about as poorly on offense as I have seen us play in my 13 years here. We’re a better football team than we showed, but give [Tabor] credit. They made the plays when they needed to.”
The Blue Jays took the opening kickoff and went 78 yards in 12 plays and just over five minutes to take an early 7-0 lead. The Vikings responded with quarterback Bruce Reyes finding tailback Elliot Hawkins for a 16-yard catch and run on MVC’s second play from scrimmage. Five plays later, Reyes hit Hawkins again on swing pass out of the backfield, and Hawkins ran 15 yards for the touchdown. Daniel Mouro’s extra-point kick tied the game at seven, which is where the score stayed at the end of the first quarter.
The Vikings defense tried to make some of its own luck when defensive back Terrance Hollins-White fell on top of a Tabor fumble at the MVC one-yard line a little less than six-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter. But Reyes fumbled on a quarterback keeper at the Viking 18 three plays later, and Tabor took only six plays to get back in the end zone and retake the lead at 14-7.
After a three-and-out on offense, Valley caught another break when Michael Barnes recovered a fumbled punt at the Tabor 12-yard line with about six minutes left in the half. Unfortunately, Reyes was intercepted two plays later, and Tabor went 11 plays and 76 yards to score its third rushing touchdown of the half and lead 21-7.
“On the interception, we got a little different look than what we were expecting, and we made a poor decision,” said Troth. “They got the turnover and took away our chance to put points on the board.”
The stretch got worse when an up-man for the Vikings’ kick return unit fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, and Tabor was able to convert on a 36-yard field goal just before the horn sounded for a 24-7 halftime lead.
“It was huge,” Troth said of the last six minutes of the half. “We turned the ball over a lot, but we were also presented some opportunities with some turnovers we didn’t take advantage of.”
The MVC defense began to stiffen in the second half, with linebacker Brad Avila forcing a fumble on the second Tabor series of the third quarter that defensive back Christian Walker recovered at the Blue Jays’ 37-yard line. Reyes found wide receiver Mikqel Johnson for a key fourth-down conversion, and the drive ended with a 32-yard field goal by Mouro to cut the deficit to 24-10.
Both offenses stalled the rest of the third quarter, but Tabor College opened the fourth quarter with a 10 play, 44-yard drive that ate up nearly five minutes and produced a 25-yard field goal to stretch their lead to 27-10. Reyes’s pass intended for Jarrell Davis was picked off four plays later, but the Viking defense came through when linebacker Danny Heimann recovered another fumble at the Tabor 20-yard line.
Reyes threw a perfect deep ball to Davis on the next play to pull Valley closer at 27-17 with seven-and-a-half minutes left in the game. Right when it seemed that the Vikings had momentum, however, Reyes was picked off on the final two possessions of the night, finishing off the loss.
“You can’t turn the ball over six times against a good football team and expect to win,” said Troth.
Reyes completed 11 of 24 passes for 107 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Davis lead MVC with three catches for 30 yards and a touchdown. Hawkins also had two receptions for 31 yards and a score, but only managed 19 yards on 11 carries. The Vikings managed just nine yards rushing, compared to 323 yards on the ground for Tabor College.
“I saw a lot of young, new guys on defense, and some poor tackling,” Troth said of the Blue Jays’ ground attack. “We were struggling to get lined up correctly, and they’re a well-coached football team. The option [offense] is a different animal than most other offenses we see. We didn’t respond well on either side of the ball, and we’ll have to improve on that.”
There were some standout performances on defense for MVC. Avila led the Vikings with 13 tackles, all solo, and a forced fumble. Defensive end Ty Phillips, a NAIA All-American selection last year, had 11 tackles, nine of them solo, and a tackle for loss.
The Vikings start the 2014 campaign 0-1, while Tabor College moves to 2-0. The Vikings will next host 24th-ranked Peru State College, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. this coming Saturday. Troth is confident his team will be much better prepared for the second game of the season and will execute much more precisely.
“We really just didn’t do anything last Saturday, so we will be better, that’s for sure,” says Troth. “We’re going to make sure the players are more determined, and I told them that what we do is we always bounce back.”