By Austin Cannon
As they will be for the rest of 2015, the Bulldogs’ championship hopes were on the line Saturday afternoon at Drake Stadium.
Undefeated Jacksonville loomed. Ineligible to win the Pioneer Football League championship because of a league-imposed penalty, the Dolphins operate as the league antagonist with designs of spoiling the playoff chances of the other PFL teams.
Behind quarterback Kade Bell and the PFL’s top passing attack, the Dolphins had not lost a PFL game since Nov. 1, 2014. They had beaten Marist, Morehead State and Stetson in 2015, but they could not replicate after the 1,025-mile trip to Des Moines.
Andy Rice threw for four touchdowns, three to tight end Eric Saubert, as the Bulldogs came back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Dolphins 28-24 and stay in the PFL title hunt.
It was an outcome that seemed so improbable given the situation. The Bulldogs had struggled much of the year on offense, especially passing the ball and especially against good teams. But even looking at a 24-14 score in the final period against an undefeated team, there was no panic offensively.
“You know what’s funny?” Rice said. “I don’t know if I even realized what the score was. I don’t know if the offense did. I felt like we were just clicking. We had that sense of urgency but it wasn’t like a scared sense of urgency. I was just fun.”
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs found themselves at the Jacksonville 34. Five more plays yielded 24 yards and it was second and goal from the 10. Rice took the snap and rolled out to his left to avoid the trio of Dolphins in pursuit. Just before being hit, he fluttered a high pass to the back of the end zone where a leaping Saubert came down with it.
With 5:12 left, John Hugunin, who finished with a career-high 20 tackles, forced his eighth fumble of the season that Drake recovered. Aided by a third-down defensive pass interference penalty and a Zach Zlabis reception, the Bulldogs had a first down at the Jacksonville 19.
Tight end Andrew Yarwood, who only had one other catch on the afternoon, ran a quick out route, made the reception and ran down the sideline before cutting inside and diving over the goal line as defenders tried to drag him down. Drake had retaken the lead, causing the crowd to get louder than it had all season. The defense got its fourth and final stop of the quarter, and one of the two PFL unbeatens fell for the first time this season.
“You get that feeling on the sideline sometime, like there’s no way we’re going to lose this game,” Yarwood said. “It was definitely there today.”
Call it a geographically ignorant rivalry. The two teams don’t like each other. Confident Jacksonville players spent the early part of the game nodding their heads and presumably jawing at the Drake sideline, drawing the ire of an angry Drake father in the stands.
“It’s definitely a big rivalry,” Yarwood said. “A lot of smack talk goes on with Jacksonville, and we have a mutual respect but also don’t like each other.”
The confidence waned after a sloppy first quarter yielded four combined turnovers, seven penalties and a 3-0 Jacksonville lead. Rice was subbed out for a pair of series, and his replacement Andrew Clifford threw a pair of interceptions on his first two pass attempts.
But then the second quarter began, and Rice led Drake (4-4, 3-2) on a six-play, 63-yard touchdown drive that culminated with a 13-yard pass to a falling-down Saubert in the front-right corner of the end zone.
It was the same connection on the next drive. After Saubert partially blocked a Jacksonville punt, Drake had the ball on the Jacksonville 22. On third and goal from the 9, Rice lofted Saubert a pass on a sideline fade route that evaded the outstretched Dolphin defender. Saubert came down with it in the same spot he caught his first one and it was 14-3, Bulldogs.
Jacksonville got a touchdown back before the half with a 33-yard Bell pass to Brian Burnett. After halftime, the Dolphins seemed to revert back to their undefeated form, marching 57 yards in fewer than three minutes to take a 17-14 lead. Toward the end of the quarter, Ulysses Bryant bounced to the outside for a 3-yard touchdown run and a 24-14 Jacksonville lead that set the stage for the Bulldogs’ comeback.
Rice, who has endured a season of injury and struggled with an oft-injured offense, was the first quarterback since 2011 to throw four touchdowns in a game. His primary target Saubert, who was also Drake’s first 100-yard receiver of the season, became the first Bulldogs to catch three touchdowns in a game since Jason Jones did in 2003.
The Drake offense had spent much of 2015 mired in a fog of mediocrity and ineffectiveness, but after head coach Rick Fox turned the play calling duties over to assistant Brad Pole on Monday, it came together.
“You know when you’re lost, you could be three steps from being found but you feel like you’re 100 miles from being found,” Fox said. “I felt like that’s where we were at for our offense. And I told them, ‘Hey, it’s going to click tomorrow. You’re going to get it.’”
While still alive, the chances of a Drake PFL title remain on life support. Not only can Drake not afford to lose, but the Bulldogs also need help. For starters, a very good San Diego team must lose two of its final four league games to give Drake a shot. Next Saturday, Drake has to find a way to win on the road against Morehead State.
“It’s a lot of momentum,” Saubert said. “We just got to buy in and keep believing in our coaches and keep believing in each other.”