STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
After being shut out at San Diego, the Bulldogs made adjustments on both sides of the ball.
On offense, head coach Rick Fox would no longer be calling the plays. Offensive assistant coach Brad Pole received the play-calling duties on Monday and he helped provide an emotional spark for the Bulldogs’ offense. Pole got his team fired up before running out of the tunnel before Drake’s 28-24 victory over Jacksonville.
“That was something we haven’t seen from (the offense),” linebacker John Hugunin said. “We haven’t seen that outward energy as much as they’d like to show it, and so having Coach Pole get them fired up from the get-go really helped the overall feel of the team.”
As it happened, the offense didn’t start out well at all. Penalties and a pair of Andrew Clifford interceptions kept the Bulldogs off the scoreboard in the first quarter. However, in the second and fourth quarters, the offense looked the best it had all season. And it was against the defense that forces the most turnovers in the FCS, too.
“I think we’ve seen our offense play well in spurts throughout the season, but today feels really good,” quarterback Andy Rice said.
Rice threw four touchdowns on the afternoon, marking the first time a Drake quarterback has done that since his predecessor, Mike Piatkowski, did in November 2011. And while it might be overlooked, Rice was also vital to Drake keeping possession.
The Bulldogs held the ball for eight-and-a-half minutes more than the Dolphins. How? Drake recorded 26 first downs and converted on 61 percent (11 of 18) of its third-down plays. Coming into the game, the Bulldogs converted on only 34 percent of third down attempts, so maybe there’s reason for optimism.
“Coach Pole definitely brings a different energy to the offense,” tight end Andrew Yarwood said. “He did a great job in his first time calling plays for us. Looking forward to seeing what we can do the rest of the season with this new offense.”
Defensively, it was less of a change and more of a return to identity.
“(Cornerback) Brad Duwe, one of our other captains, said we got to back to basics,” Hugunin said. “We’ve got to do things the way we know how to: run to the football, try to get the football out — whether, that’s interceptions, fumbles, whatever. We really bought into that this week. We had probably our best week of practice that we’ve had this season and I think that really carried over to the game.”
Hugunin and the rest of the defense did exactly that. The Bulldogs forced three turnovers, Hugunin forcing his second fumble of the day late in the fourth quarter to set up Drake’s winning touchdown.
Jacksonville quarterback Kade Bell threw for 235 yards, 77 under his per-game average.
Hugunin finished with 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an almost comical 20 tackles, a career high and the high-water mark for PFL defenders this season.
Not only was he named the Defensive Player of the Week in the PFL for the second time this season, but he is also the FCS National Defensive Player of the Week.
Saubert Breaks Out
When healthy, tight end Eric Saubert has been the most reliable pass-catching option for the Bulldogs for the past three seasons. He had led the Bulldogs in receptions for the first seven games of 2015, but he had yet to have the big breakout game of his senior season.
On Saturday, he turned in a signature performance, catching nine balls for 118 yards and three touchdowns. He was the first Drake player to catch three touchdowns in a game since 2003 and the Bulldogs’ first 100-yard receiver in 2015. For his effort, he earned the PFL’s Offensive Player of the Week honor.
Primarily, Saubert was able to use his size as a major advantage. At 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds, Rice calls him a “monster.”
Two of his touchdowns came from out-leaping the usually shorter defender. On a play in the fourth quarter, the defensive back trying to defend Saubert was all over him, but Saubert caught the ball high before physically driving the defender forward for five more yards. The Bulldogs declined the pass interference penalty.
“I’m much bigger than him, obviously, trying to use that to my advantage as much as I can,” Saubert said. “Andy put the ball in the perfect spot every time, so it was awesome today.”
The Drake coaches were also able to use Saubert the way they wanted to Saturday. Injuries at the tight end position had limited how freely they could deploy him, but a healthy Yarwood and Lee Snell gave the Bulldogs more options.
“We couldn’t move him around,” Fox said. “So now we’re starting to use him the way we want to use him, and we had a mismatch on the boundary.”
Barring the extreme unlikelihood of PFL rivals losing the rest of their games, the Bulldogs must win out to have even a chance of hoisting the championship trophy at the season’s conclusion.
Drake plays 4-3 Morehead State Saturday in Morehead, Kentucky. The Eagles are 3-1 in the PFL, so a Drake victory would give the Bulldogs the valuable tiebreaker in the season’s final month.
The Eagles beat Campbell 31-27 on a touchdown run from receiver Christian Robinson in the final seconds Saturday. MSU is tied for second in the league with San Diego while 7-0 Dayton occupies the top spot.
The kickoff at MSU is set for noon.