STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
If the Drake Bulldogs can run the ball well in every game of the rest of the 2015 season, they might win out. Playing every game at Drake Stadium could also help, but that’s unlikely.
The Bulldogs (3-3) rushed for 205 yards and three touchdowns, John Hugunin made big plays on defense and Drake won 34-7 over the Valparaiso Crusaders Saturday to stay undefeated at Drake Stadium in 2015. Drake has now beaten the Crusaders 12 straight times, a streak that started in 2004.
Conley Wilkins returned after missing last week’s game with an injury to score three touchdowns, playing his role as a vital ingredient to the recipe that has so far led Drake to victory: finding success running the ball.
In Drake’s three wins this season, the offense has averaged 222 yards rushing. In their three losses, the Bulldogs have managed an average of fewer than 65 yards on the ground. There are too many factors in the game of football to make that a purely causal relationship, but a steady ground attack obviously does wonders for an offense.
“When you’re running the ball well, then you’re in good down-and-distance situations, and that gives you opportunities to throw the ball,” head coach Rick Fox said. “When you’re not running the ball well, you’re going to be in bad down-and-distance situations and then it puts ton of pressure not just on the receivers or the quarterback but especially on the offensive line in terms of pass protection.”
Wilkins led a quite balanced rushing offense with 59 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He had a 3-yard run into in the end zone on his first play, and he ran over a Crusader defender on his way to his second touchdown. He also caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from a scrambling Andy Rice in the third quarter.
“He’s a slippery running back,” Fox said. “People don’t get straight-up tackles on him. Down on the goal line, he’s as good a running back as I’ve ever been around.”
Along with Wilkins’s 59, Gary Scott Jr. had 50 yards on the ground. Brock Reichardt added 49, and Tyler Updecraft ran for 29 in his first appearance of the season.
“I feel like our running game really controls our offense,” Wilkins said. “If we do well in the run game, we have a pretty good chance of winning the game.”
On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs bit down on the Crusaders, holding them to only 208 total yards, 43 on the ground.
“That’s kind of our home play right there, stopping the run,” Hugunin said. “Anytime we can do that, it makes them one-dimensional and then we know what they’re going to do, which kind of opens up our playbook a little bit.”
Hugunin was all over the field in a performance that will almost surely earn him Pioneer Football League defensive player of the week honors: blocking a punt, grabbing an interception, recording seven tackles and performing his weekly ritual of forcing a fumble. Call it a response to a tough loss to Campbell last week.
“Losing a conference game in this conference is always tough, but it’s about how you respond,” Hugunin said. “That’s why you play 11 games.”
Hugunin put Drake in a position to get on the board in the first quarter. With Valpo punting on fourth down, he came around the edge and got a hand on Alex Ng’s punt and Drake recovered at the Valpo 36. Three plays later, Wilkins was in the end zone and Drake had a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Hugunin, a fifth-year senior, got his first career interception in the third quarter when he picked off Ryan Clarke at the Valpo 38. The linebacker from Oswego, Illinois, also stripped Valpo running back Frank Catrine in the fourth quarter, but the fumble bounced out-of-bounds. Still, it was Hugunin’s sixth forced fumble in as many games.
Wilkins’ second touchdown came as a result of great field position. Kicking into the wind, Ng’s punt only got to the Crusaders’ 34. The second quarter began mid-drive, and Wilkins was in with the 4-yard score before 45 seconds had ticked off the game clock.
After Wilkins’ receiving touchdown, Reichardt made the final end-zone trip of the day with 4:05 left in the third quarter, giving Drake a 28-0 lead. It was Reichardt’s first touchdown as a Bulldog, not that he thought much about it.
“It’s just a touchdown. It’s just a memory,” Reichardt said. “It’s pretty cool, though.”
After the game, eyes turned west toward San Diego, where Drake will play the Toreros next Saturday. The Bulldogs have taken care of business at home, but they must improve their 0-3 road record to have a shot at the PFL championship.
“We have to win out. There’s no other option if we want to go to the playoffs and do what we want to do,” Hugunin said. “There’s no more room for error.”
But for now, Drake remains in the title hunt with a 2-1 league record after a victory that was never really in doubt — a confidence boost.
“The biggest thing in the PFL is winning on the road,” linebacker Michael Roane said, “but these home wins really help build on for the next game and give the team a moral high so we can go out there and build on it.”