By Austin Cannon
It had been a season of adversity and injury; road woes and inconsistency. After positive signs at the end of 2014, the Drake Bulldogs had fallen short of expectations.
A victory over undefeated Dayton in the season finale would do little to salvage Drake’s below-.500 season, but it would be the best way to say goodbye to the 22 seniors playing their final game as Bulldogs.
Saturday was the second time this season an undefeated PFL team visited Drake Stadium. For the second time, the unbeaten fell. The offense scored 21 unanswered points, John Hugunin set the Drake record for career tackles, and the Bulldogs held off the Flyers late for the 600th victory in program history, 27-17.
“We wanted to send guys out the right way, and that was all the motivation we needed,” Hugunin said.
An early lead against Dayton — a team that had came back from second-half deficits to win seven times this season — is never safe. But three first-half touchdowns is a deep hole for any team to climb out of.
With the temperature failing to get above freezing and snow covering two-thirds of the bleachers, both teams struggled to get anything going. Drake got the ball back late in the first quarter and went to work, putting together a textbook drive, one of its best of the season.
Andy Rice led the charge, passing for 50 yards and rushing for 23. He finished the drive by floating a 23-yard pass over the middle to Zach Zlabis, who caught it just past the goal line for the game’s initial score.
Conley Wilkins upped the lead to 14-0 early in the second, running to the end zone untouched from 25 yards out. Drake (5-6) got the ball back with 1:46 until halftime. Rice, who was held out of last week’s game against Butler, completed 5 of his 7 passes as he marched the Bulldogs down the field. His fifth completion was a 21-yard touchdown pass to fellow fifth-year senior Michael Hudson on a corner route.
While the offense was clicking, the defense had limited the Dayton offense to 49 first-half yards. The Flyers were 0-for-6 on third down and had only had the ball for a little more than 10 minutes.
“That was a great, great, great first half of football,” head coach Rick Fox said.
A three-touchdown lead at halftime was something to feel good about, but a comeback still loomed. The Flyers would wake up.
“We talked all week about how the most physical team was going to win this football game, and that’s what we needed to do one play at a time,” Fox said.
Dayton’s first touchdown came midway through the third quarter. A 32-yard pass from Alex Jeske to Jack Euritt got the Flyers to the Drake 3, where Jeske ran the ball in on the next play. One play on the next Dayton drive, however, would prove historic.
Hugunin sat at 412 career tackles when Jeske threw a 7-yard pass to Jack Adams. Hugunin and Terry Wallen combined to wrestle Adams down at the Drake 26. The record-breaking stop bore little resemblance to the pad-popping hit Hugunin put on running back Tucker Yinger in the first half, but the stop still eclipsed the 20-year record set by linebacker Matt Garvis in 1995.
Hugunin finished with 12 tackles, giving him 417 in his illustrious career and achieving the record-breaking goal he set in his early days at Drake.
“That was a goal I set for myself freshman year, so it’s kind of nice and kind of exciting to be able to do it in the last game,” Hugunin said.
“He just gives himself to everything he does,” Fox said.
The accolades would have to wait; Drake still had to hold on, especially after the way Dayton opened the final quarter.
After a Gary Scott Jr. fumble on the first play of the fourth, Dayton took eight plays before Jack Adams rushed into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the Drake 1. After Drake went three-and-out, the Flyers added a William Will field goal. Drake’s three-possession lead was down to only four points with 6:09 left in the contest.
But despite what their record might indicate, there was no panic from the Bulldogs.
“This is a group that has played a lot of football together, so we knew what we had to do to win the game,” Hugunin said.
Another empty possession from Drake gave the ball back to the Flyers with four minutes left. Facing a third-and-seven from the Drake 32, Jeske dropped back to throw. He was quickly chased out of the pocket and sacked by Mack Marrin for the third time in the game. It was a loss of 8. After a timeout, Jeske’s pass was well off-target to Euritt and the ball went back to the Bulldogs with 2:04 left.
On the very next play, Wilkins took the carry, sprinting up the middle 60 yards for Drake’s lone touchdown of the second half, sealing the outcome.
Dayton had already secured its spot in the FCS playoffs, but played their starters throughout, clearly wanting the undefeated mark to stand. But the cold, snowy Drake Stadium and its inhabitants proved troublesome. Winless on the road this season, Drake compensated by going an undefeated 5-0 at home, providing a proper send-off for its 22 seniors.
‘There’s a lot of ways that could’ve been perfect,” Rice said, “but I can’t complain about beating an undefeated Dayton at home with a bunch of awesome friends and family and all the guys here.”