STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
Down 30-27 and facing a fourth and one at the Dayton 18-yard line with 49 seconds left, Drake head coach Rick Fox called a timeout. He had a choice to make.
Should they attempt a game-tying field goal, or try for the first down that would hopefully lead to the winning touchdown?
After meeting with his offense, Fox chose the latter.
“The guys were, ‘Coach, we got to go for it,’” Fox said.
After some tentative play on offense in the previous week’s loss to San Diego, the theme in practice leading up to Saturday was to “play reckless” — to not worry about making mistakes.
“That’s what the guys said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be reckless this week. Let’s be reckless right now and go get it done,’” Fox said. “They made that call as much as anybody, but I had a good hunch that they were going to make that call.”
He put the ball in the hands of quarterback Andy Rice. Rice took the snap and he and the Bulldog offensive line pushed forward two yards. First down.
Three plays later, Rice found receiver Michael Hudson wide open in the front left corner of the end zone. The extra point was good, and Drake had its first lead of the game with 18 seconds left, 34-30.
Caz Zyks intercepted Dayton quarterback Will Bardo’s Hail Mary try as time expired. Drake moved to 6-4 overall, and 5-2 in the Pioneer Football League.
After falling into a 14-0 hole in the first half, Drake spent nearly the entire game playing from behind.
Benefitting from excellent field position on its first drive, Dayton took only three plays to get on the board. From the Drake 24, Bardo ran a perfect zone-option, yanking his handoff back at the last second and trotting into the end zone untouched.
The Bulldog offense sputtered in the first quarter, either turning the ball over or punting to end each drive. Not to mention, Dayton tacked on another touchdown when running back Connor Kacsor broke a pair of tackles during his 28-yard burst to the end zone.
If the Bulldogs wanted to keep the game within reach, the offense needed to respond.
Drake started at its own 16-yard line after the ensuing kickoff. Rice dropped back and saw tight end Andrew Yarwood streaking up the seam, completely uncovered. It was an easy pitch-and-catch. The sophomore sprinted 84 yards for the touchdown — without a Flyer defender within 10 yards of him — to halve Dayton’s lead to 14-7.
“We ran that play because we knew it was there,” Fox said.
Fox wanted his offense to play with more maturity, to grow up, after the San Diego game. He got his wish.
“You could feel it on the sideline,” Fox said. “And that play to Andrew Yarwood really sparked us, and then we played with maturity and confidence for the rest of the game.”
The Bulldogs’ next drive was a mammoth 16-play, 96-yard march down the field. Rice and running backs T.J. James and Conley Wilkins accounted for 88 of those yards on the ground, highlighted by Rice’s 31-yard dash up the sideline. Wilkins’ one-yard plunge brought Drake within one, but the extra point did not go according to plan.
Instead of splitting the uprights, Spencer Lee’s kick was blocked. Dayton’s Cameron Stubbs scooped it up and returned it all the way to the opposite end zone. That gave Dayton a bonus two points, and the Flyers led 16-13.
Lee also had a 22-yard field goal blocked in the third quarter as Drake’s kicking woes continued. Bulldog kickers are now a combined 4-of-11 on the season.
Dayton tacked on another touchdown later in the quarter, but the Flyer offense made a crucial mistake at the end of the first half.
With 1:09 to go, Kascor took the handoff and tried the left side. Drake’s John Hugunin made the hit and jarred the ball loose. Sean Conerty fell on it, and Drake was in business at the Dayton 14 with 1:01 to go.
Rice only took three plays to find Hudson in the back of the end zone. The 10-yard touchdown pass with 44 seconds left cut the Flyer lead to 23-20.
“Whenever you score at the end of a half, going into that locker room, that momentum usually stays with you going into the second half, and it certainly did that for us, offensively,” Fox said.
Bardo hit Ross Smith for a 20-yard touchdown to open the second half, but Drake again responded late in the third.
Still relying on the ground game, Rice and the backfield paced the Bulldogs down the field. Besides an 11-yard completion to Matthew Denning, all the yardage came on the ground, culminating in another Wilkins touchdown, this time from the eight yard line.
In all, Drake rushed for an impressive 277 yards and a 5.8 yards-per-carry average. James ran for a career-high 117 yards, and Rice added 99. The 277 yards was Drake’s second-most this season, only falling behind the comical 343 yards the Bulldogs put up on Davidson Oct. 11.
With only a three-point deficit, the stage was set for the deciding fourth-down call.
The win lifted Drake to within a game of the top spot in the PFL. However, the Bulldogs will not earn the PFL’s automatic qualifier spot in the 2014 FCS playoffs. That distinction will fall to either Jacksonville or San Diego.
The best Drake can do is tie Jacksonville and San Diego at the top of the standings, but Drake lost to both teams earlier this season, so tiebreaker rules easily eliminate the Bulldogs.
In any event, the Bulldogs are in the middle of their second bye week of the season, preparing for their first-ever matchup with the Stetson Hatters next Saturday. The kickoff for the season finale is set for noon under the Florida sun.
“It’s going to be a week of focusing on the little things and perfecting them for the last game,” Fox said. “I think our guys are pretty motivated and excited about it.”