Story by Austin Cannon
Photo by Joel Venzke
The defense that led the Pioneer Football League in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense last season was on full display April 19 at Drake Stadium. The Bulldog defense beat the offense 70-39 in the Drake football team’s annual Blue and White spring game.
The defense forced five turnovers — four interceptions and one fumble — and surrendered only two touchdowns to first-year head coach Rick Fox’s offense.
“It has been a very good spring and our defense really picked up the new defense very well,” Fox said. “They forced us into turnovers today and have been doing that throughout the spring.”
Each of those turnovers earned the defense five points. A stop on downs earned three points and a defensive touchdown earned 11. As usual, a safety was worth two points.
Touchdowns, field goals and extra points were all worth the regular amount to the offense, while first downs and plays of 20-plus yards were worth one point each.
The offense kept it close until midway through the third eight-minute quarter.
Starting quarterback Andy Rice floated a screen pass to running back T.J. James who took it 42 yards down the right side for a touchdown with 5:27 left in the quarter to tie the score at 31-31.
The defense responded by scoring the next 20 points. It forced five straight three-and-outs, and Bob Quilico intercepted a Rice pass over the middle to up the score to 51-31.
The offense ended its scoring drought when backup quarterback Andrew Clifford threw a 13-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Matthew Denning for a first down.
The damage was already done, however, as the defense collected several more stops and intercepted another pass to cruise to victory.
For linebacker John Hugunin, who led the Bulldogs and the PFL with 113 tackles in 2013, thought the defense’s play had helped everyone during the 14 spring practices.
“It’s been a competitive spring and I think everyone’s gotten better as a whole,” Hugunin said.
Besides turnovers, the offense had issues with penalties. It was called for eight penalties at the line of scrimmage, including multiple false starts and delay of games.
Besides that, Fox was complementary of his stable of arms going into the fall.
“Andy’s been doing a fantastic job and Andrew Clifford and Cody Thibault have been doing a nice job coming along, and we feel like we have a good group of quarterbacks,” Fox said.
The two sides played to a 22-22 tie in the first half.
The offense’s other touchdown came on a one-yard carry from running back A.J. Washington with 2:10 left in the second quarter, closing the gap to 19-17. The offense was able to tie the score with several first downs toward the end of the half, but never led.
The offense wasn’t the only unit that struggled. The punt unit had an especially hard time executing.
The first three punts were all at least partially blocked. The third was smothered by junior defensive back Bryan Pisklo and taken to the end zone by fellow defensive back Grant Krueger. Since members from both the offense and defense make up the special teams units, no points were awarded.
In the third quarter, Spencer Lee was finally able to get a kick off cleanly.
The game marked the conclusion of spring practices. Now, the Bulldogs prepare for the fall, where they’ll attempt to win their third PFL title in four years after a disappointing 2013 season.
Hugunin noted the Bulldogs’ change in mindset.
“Anytime we get on the practice field there’s been a little more sense of urgency (than) last year,” Hugunin said. “We realize that we can’t just show up anymore. We have to play. We have to work hard.”
For Rice, the team’s experience outweighs the adjustments that come with a new coaching staff.
“In the end, we all the experience under our belts,” Rice said. “So we’re looking to have a lot of fun next year, and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Bulldogs open their 2014 season on Aug. 30, hosting Grand View at 6 p.m.