STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
An oft-used script for the 2014 Drake team was its superb defense compensating for an offense that struggled to score. That script flipped in the 2015 opener.
After only one touchdown drive in the first half, the Drake offense reached the end zone four times in the final two quarters and the Bulldogs beat the William Jewell Cardinals 44-30 Saturday night at Drake Stadium.
“We knew that we were going to be better offensively,” Drake coach Rick Fox said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons offensively … It was fun for those guys because of how we struggled last year.”
Perhaps chief among those weapons was running back Conley Wilkins, who ran for 110 yards and three touchdowns, benefitting from a balanced and effective passing attack.
“This year, we want to make a statement that the offense will carry more than the defense in some cases,” Wilkins said.
Andy Rice was 24-for-37 for 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Nine different receivers recorded a reception, led by tight end Eric Saubert with seven grabs for 74 yards.
Drake scored its first touchdown on its opening drive but the offense was otherwise limited to a pair of field goals in the first half. Drake received to begin the second, and Rice found receiver Michael Hudson for a 46-yard gain over the middle. Hudson was knocked out-of-bounds at the Jewell 1-yard line, but Wilkins dove in on the next play. The drive took only 2:36.
Starting the second half, Rice said the offense needed to get out of its own way.
“We were our own worst enemy, just doing little things that were holding us back,’ he said. “It really wasn’t them; it was us.”
The Hudson catch-and-run set the tone for two more big plays from receivers.
With Drake up 19-9 in the middle of the third quarter, Rice found tight end Andrew Yarwood on a shallow drag route. Yarwood cut it up field, used a couple of blocks and streaked up the right sideline to the end zone untouched.
Eric Saubert made the biggest play of the game with a little more than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. A one-handed touchdown catch by Jewell receiver Cody Edwards had trimmed the Drake lead to 29-23, but Drake was driving at the Cardinal 22.
On 3rd and 11, Rice found Saubert in the middle of the field near the 10. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound Saubert spun off a pair of hits and broke two more tackles before lunging into the end zone. The two-point conversion gave Drake a two-possession lead on a night where its defense wasn’t up to its excellent 2014 standard.
Jewell wasn’t lighting up the scoreboard, but it did manage to stick around into the fourth quarter.
Down 10 at half, the Cardinals got a 29-yard touchdown run from Trejuan Mask and a 97-yard kickoff return from Anthony Mullins in the third quarter.
Mask was the workhorse for the Cardinals. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound bruiser ran for 114 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Behind him, the Cardinals were able to move the ball reasonably well, tallying 16 first downs.
“He was a very hard runner,” safety Bryan Pisklo said. “I think gang tackling is something we’ve preached all week, and I think with a hard runner like that, that’s the best way to take him down.”
Linebacker Taylor Coleman was out with a shoulder injury and defensive back Bob Quilico also did not play, but the shorthanded defense kept Drake in front and provided a pair of vital turnovers.
Pisklo picked off Jewell’s Nick West in the end zone early in the first quarter. In the fourth, Cody Stepanek intercepted West off a deflection. Both turnovers were followed by touchdown drives, the 14-point difference in the final score.
“Turnovers are really something we preach here,” Pisklo said. “Turnovers always lead to good things, so as many as we can get, that’s always a good thing.”
In the red zone, Drake was a perfect 7-for-7 in scoring opportunities, four touchdowns and three field goals.
The offense recorded 496 total yards. In 2014, Drake averaged only 367 yards per game. The tight ends (Saubert, Yarwood and Lee Snell), combined for 164 receiving yards. Granted, this was a game against a D-II Jewell team picked to finish seventh in their conference, but the numbers don’t lie.
“When everyone’s getting a touch, I love that, and they love it because everyone is open on every play, according to them,” Rice said, laughing.
The Bulldogs also snapped what had become an uneasy trend. After dropping the 2013 and ’14 openers, Drake came away with what mattered most Saturday night: a victory.
“When you come back in that first game, there’s a little bit of doubt,” Fox said. “And until you get that first win, you can’t exhale a little bit. Our guys can do that.”
Of note: Senior offensive lineman Aaron Melton was injured on the offense’s first play when Wilkins went down behind him. Melton was carted off with a right ankle injury and returned to the sideline late in the game on crutches with his right foot in a boot.