By Austin Cannon
Sometimes, you just need to come home.
After two straight losses on the road, the Bulldogs opened the Pioneer Football League season with a 41-3 demolition of the Stetson Hatters Saturday at Drake Stadium, where Drake is 36-7 since the end of the 2007 season.
“It was good in a lot of ways because it was a whole team win, every phase of the team was big today,” head coach Rick Fox said.
Save a handful of plays, Drake dominated in all facets. The offense found the end zone four times against the Hatters a week after being shut out at South Dakota.
On special teams, Conley Wilkins returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. It tied for the second longest return in program history.
Most of all, Drake won on defense. The Bulldog front seven dominated the line of scrimmage so much that the Hatters finished with zero rushing yards. And it wasn’t much better for Stetson through the air: Starting quarterback Ryan Tentler failed to break 100 yards and was sacked five times.
Two of those sacks came at the hands of Drake defensive end Mack Marrin during Stetson’s first two drives. He finished with four tackles for a loss.
“(I) made sure I’m doing my job, made sure I focused on tackling and executing,” Marrin said.
Playing Stetson in the last game of 2014 perhaps paid dividends for the Bulldogs. Whatever the Stetson did on offense, Drake was not fooled. The Hatters were forced to execute, and they couldn’t.
“Nothing surprised us, what they did,” linebacker John Hugunin said.
Stetson’s only points came on a field goal that resulted from the drive starting at the Drake 31 after a Cody Thibault interception. Otherwise, the Stetson offense spent most of its time on its end of the field. Except for the field goal drive, Stetson’s average starting point was its own 24, a welcome sight for the Bulldogs.
“When they know their opponents have a long field to work with, you can play your whole playbook,” Fox said.
The Hatters finished 3 of 15 on third down and only managed 13 first downs compared to Drake’s 23.
Fox gave much of the credit to the Bulldogs’ scout teams.
“Those guys basically have to learn a new offense and and a new defense in a couple of days and give us a great look and they did a fantastic job this week,” Fox said.
Thibault started in place of the injured Andy Rice and took a step forward after struggling mightily last week at South Dakota. He threw three interceptions (one was on a Hail Mary at the end of the half) in the first half but settled down to throw two of his three touchdowns in the final two quarters.
“Just felt more comfortable this week than I did last week, and I think it showed,” Thibault said.
Thibault hit Lee Snell for an 11-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to put Drake up 10-0. He finished off a seven-play, 80-yard drive to open the second half by finding Zach Zlabis in the right front corner of the end zone from the Stetson 12.
Thibault’s biggest play came on his final snap. His throw was a little high, but A.J. Spitz, near the sideline with a defender in his face, tipped and juggled the ball, corralled it and sprinted to the end zone for the 55-yard touchdown and a 34-3 Drake lead.
“He’s got that confidence,” Fox said. “He was able to lead us to a win. He’s made the big throws now, and until you do that in a game, you always have that wondering and he came out and did that.”
Besides having his first-career start behind him, Thibault’s comfort was aided by the strong running game behind him. Wilkins had 152 yards on the ground that included a 69-yard run on the Drake’s first offensive play.
His touchdown return in the second quarter answered Stetson’s field goal. Wilkins caught the ball at his goal line and jetted through a pair of gaping holes before outrunning defenders on the left sideline to the end zone.
“Our blockers did an outstanding job on the kickoff return,” Wilkins said. “It was wide open so I hit the hole hard and got in the end zone.”
The return helped give him 250 all-purpose yards, and it was the fourth time in his career that he rushed for more than 100 yards. By leading for most of the game, the Bulldogs could stick with the running game instead of being forced to go to the air. Led by Wilkins, Drake (2-2) amassed 251 yards on the ground, controlling the ball for its second home win of 2015.
“When you are at home, you have to win those games in this conference,” Fox said.