By JD PELEGRINO
Bulldogs improve to 3-1, 2-0 in PFL due to high performing offense and “stifling” defense
To begin their two-game homestand, the Drake Bulldogs (3-1, 2-0) hosted the Butler Bulldogs (3-2, 1-1) for both homecoming and family weekend. This meeting marks the 26th time Butler and Drake have gone head to head. Coming into Saturday’s game, Drake led the series 18-7. Drake has been red hot this season, carrying the upper hand on most opponents with a powerful passing offense and defense that has looked the best it has in years.
Drake’s defense forced punts on the first two Butler drives, giving up only 34 yards. Drake wide receiver contributed that this only seems fitting due to his team’s motto for the year, “blue collar.” On Drake’s second drive of the game, in a miscommunication between quarterback Grant Kraemer and running back Cross Robinson, the handoff was fumbled and then recovered by redshirt-senior defensive lineman Matt Hawkins.
Once again, Drake’s defense held the Butler offense to a three-and-out on the following drive for a net loss of eight yards. Drake’s offensive spark was ignited on their third offensive possession. Kraemer put together a productive drive beginning with a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Devin Cates to the Drake 28-yard line. On the next first down, sophomore running back Braeden Hartwig rushed for eight yards, setting Kraemer up to complete another 15-yard pass, but this time to wide receiver Mitch McFarlane. The drive concluded with a broken play resulting in a touchdown. Kraemer dropped back and surveyed the field, not finding any open receiver. He was hit by a couple of Butler defenders, but withered his way through the defense, remaining in the pocket. At the last second before taking a hit, he saw his 6-foot-5-inch tight end Zach DeLeon, who had his man beat. Kraemer let the ball fly as it soared 42 yards where DeLeon pulled the ball in the Butler end zone. Followed by a Danny Donley PAT, Drake established a 7-0 lead.
Drake’s Hunter White kicked the ball off to Butler where the drive began on the Butler 22-yard line. It was at this point when the Drake defense began to do what they have done all season: force turnovers. On the first play of the drive, Butler quarterback Will Marty launched the ball 25 yards to one of his receivers near the Drake sideline. Fifth-year senior defensive back for Drake, Jabari Butler, had been playing tight coverage and was all over the receiver. After being interfered with by the Butler receiver, Butler, as he was being tackled, managed to pull the ball in for Drake’s first interception of the game.
“I saw the ball come out of [Marty’s] hands,” Butler said. “I just knew I had to make a play on it. I saw it go up and I knew I only had one had to get it with the left, so I just tried to go for it.”
As Butler spoke to the grit of the Drake defense, members of the Drake team shouted “JB’s a freak!” referencing his ability to pull in the one-handed interception. Butler credited the defensive success this season back to the summer workouts before the season. Butler explained that the defense held themselves to a high standard even in seven-on-seven’s.
Both Bulldog offenses exchanged punts before Drake safety Will Warner added another interception to his 2018 resume. Warner returned the interception 45 yards to the Butler 3-yard line. Kraemer and the offense jogged onto the field for a one-play drive resulting in a Hartwig touchdown run.
At the end of the first half, the Bulldogs led 14-0. Throughout the second half, Drake scored three touchdowns, one by RB Hartwig and two by WR Steven Doran. Doran was the most efficient receiver against Butler hauling in four receptions for 81 yards and two touchdowns. Doran leads the team in scoring with six touchdowns receiving, yards (389), and yards per game averaging nearly 100 yards per game (97.2).
“When he transferred here, I was like the fourth-string receiver, and when he came in he was the fourth-string quarterback, so just getting that early chemistry developing really helped build our friendship,” Doran said. “He’s a great guy and if I can keep building that friendship, it obviously that translates to [the field].”
Doran joked crediting his on-the-field success with Kraemer due to their girlfriends living together.
“It helps that our girlfriends live in the same house, so I’ve been seeing him for a while,” Doran said.
The first Butler touchdown of the game did not come until Drake had already put the game away. After the second Doran touchdown, Drake led 34-0. With 7:47 left in the fourth quarter, Butler QB Will Marty threw for the lone Butler score, connecting with WR Stephen Dennis. The Butler and Drake special teams units lined up for a routine PAT kick. Drake blocked the kick and linebacker Zac Rujawitz returned it all the way to the opposing end zone for two points.
By the end of the game, the Drake defense had recorded two interceptions, one punt block and a PAT block for two points. Drake’s defense has been enforcing turnovers all season and limiting opposing offenses to just 19 points across the last three games.
“We’re big on turnover margins,” Butler said. “If we get three plus takeaways in a game, the percentages for us to win a game are higher. We try to preach takeaways.”
Drake’s defense has five interceptions already this season by four different defensemen. Aside from the takeaways, Drake’s defense has established a solid rush defense, sacking opposing QBs 12 times totaling losses of 86 yards. They have recorded 29 tackles for a loss, pushing opposing offenses back 116 yards through the season so far. If Butler had to describe the defense in one word, he said it would be “stifling,” because every time they line up, they make opposing offenses earn it, whether it be on the ground or through the air.
Kraemer now has 12 touchdowns across the same three-game span. Against Butler, Kraemer completed 17 of 26 passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Drake Bulldogs are riding a three-game winning streak with the win against Butler at home. Next week, Drake hosts Stetson (3-1, 1-1) at Drake Stadium. Stetson has beat Marist and lost to the University of San Diego in the PFL this season. Saturday will mark the fourth time Drake and Stetson have played each other, Drake leads the series 3-0. The game begins at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13.