Defense decisive in Baker bowl win
BOLIVAR, Mo. Just one more time. That's all Baker University's vaunted defense was asked to do in the KWTO Bowl game here Saturday. Hold just one more time.
Clinging to a 27-23 lead with less than a minute left in the game, the second punt-snap gaffe of the fourth quarter by Baker put Campbellsville, Ky., University's Tigers at the 9-yard-line with 44.5 seconds left. That was 9 yards away from the winning touchdown.
It might as well have been 99 yards.
Baker's nationally ranked defense, star-studded with All-Americans such as defensive tackle Carlos Grace and defensive back Mark Emry, as well as plenty of other skilled and devastating hitters, was up to the challenge. And it was a challenge. Tiger quarterback Crad (no, that's no typo) Jaggers had caused trouble all day, both with his scrambling ability and his arm.
First the Tigers tried a run good for only three yards. A surprise, given the time element, but it would be the only yards they got. Jaggers then threw into the right corner of the end zone. Incomplete. Then he tried a pass to the fullback. Again Incomplete. One last gasp attempt went into the left corner of the end zone. Baker cornerback Darrel Jones knocked that one away and the Wildcats had their 27-23 victory in a cold, but ultimately not bitter, cat fight with the Tigers.
"We told our kids when they went out there on defense they make those plays all the time," said Baker coach John Frangoulis. "We asked them to do it one more time and they did.
"It was fitting that our defense did it one more time," said Frangoulis.
Defense and special teams had been the cornerstone of the Baker squad this year as the Wildcats compiled a 9-2 record and were ranked No. 17 in the nation. The offense had its ups and downs, usually performing on the basis of senior quarterback Levi Schuck. Saturday was no exception ... almost.
The defense was obviously solid. Aside from the final make-or-break stand, the Wildcats stopped a talented Campbellsville team time and again. They gave up yards, but few points. In fact, only seven of the Tigers' points were attributed to a drive against the BU defense. Baker forced four turnovers, three interceptions and a fumble.
The Tigers scored two of their three touchdowns as a result of special team breakdowns by Baker. The first was a blocked punt that put the Tigers on the 1-yard line and the second was a long kickoff return aided by a late-hit penalty. Another two points was scored on the first miss-snap by the Baker punt team, which sailed over the head of punter Marcel Matthews in the fourth quarter. Matthews had enough sense to kick the ball out of the end zone for a safety. That's what pulled Campbellsville within four points at 27-23 with about 11 minutes left in the game. Those mistakes kept it tight.
"We made some critical mistakes on special teams, that's what made it close," said Frangoulis.
But the defense, and a good dose of Schuck, pulled the Wildcats through. Schuck, a 6-foot-1, 209-pound senior from Peoria, Ariz., would wind up as the bowl game offensive Most Valuable Player. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. The load fell to him, especially, when the only part of Baker's running game that was working, 6-0, 175-pound senior Terrence Spencer, left the game early in the third quarter with a knee injury.
"We were very unfortunate to get Spencer hurt," said Schuck. "I took it upon my shoulders and we did all right. I felt good about passing the ball today."
Baker had opened the game by running the ball with Spencer at will. The Wildcats quickly drove down the field on their first possession with Spencer running for 21 yards. But, a missed field goal, the first special team problem, kept the Wildcats from scoring. That was how the first quarter went a 0-0 tie in what looked to be a defensive struggle.
The second quarter proved otherwise. Campbellsville got on the scoreboard first with a 1-yard-run following the blocked punt just into the second quarter. Schuck answered with a 51-yard-bomb to 6-4, 191-pound senior Ryan Costello to tie it at 7-7 about a minute later. Then came the Tigers next touchdown, thanks to the long kickoff return and penalty for a 14-7 lead.
Then it was time for the Baker defense big time. Campbellsville was driving with less than a minute left in the half and looked poised to take a 21-7 lead. But, with just five seconds left, Baker's Manny Duran, a 6-0, 200-pound senior from Hacienda Heights, Calif., picked off a Jaggers pass and returned it 90 yards yes, that's 90 yards for a touchdown. Another Baker special team problem, a blocked extra point, left the score at 14-13 in favor of the Tigers at halftime.
"The pass interception before halftime killed us," said Ron Finley, Campbellsville head coach. "If you want to point to a turning point in the game, that was it."
That lead didn't last long. Baker opened the second half with its best drive of the game, moving 70 yards in 10 plays. Most of it was Schuck. He threw for 61 yards of it and ran for another seven. When he hit Eric Sherpy, a 5-11, 164-pound senior, for six yards and a touchdown, the Wildcats were up for good. It was 21-14 after Schuck hit 6-3, 234-pound tight end Chad Greve for the two-point conversion.
Then it was time for more Baker defense. First, the Wildcats slowed a Tiger drive which resulted in a missed field goal. Then, after the BU offense got nowhere, the Wildcats forced a fumble which was recovered by Jason Montgomery, a 5-9, 201-pound senior from Topeka who was playing his first real game since suffering a freak arm injury during practice in August.
Again, it was Schuck time. First he hit Sherpy for a 39-yard gain. Then he hit Mackie Valentin, the 5-8, 170-pound senior from Overland Park who had been doubled and tripled teamed all day because he was the Wildcat's leading receiver, for a 12-yard gain, plus a face-mask penalty. Two plays later Schuck found his favorite receiver, Valentin, in the end zone for a 4-yard-touchdown. Ooops, another special team problem. Baker's extra-point attempt bounced off the upright, but the Cats were up 27-14 with 4:08 left in the third quarter.
It would prove to be enough points, but only because of the Baker defense.
"I thought Baker played awfully good defense, just like we expected," said Finley. "We played very few teams this year that played defense like that."
As for the gift of the ball at the 9-yard-line with 44 seconds left, Finley said it might have been different if there would have been more time.
"We were out of time-outs, so we couldn't run the ball," he said. "Normally we run the ball down there. You can bet we would have run a couple of options down there if we would have had more time."
Instead, there was time for the Baker defense to shine again. One more time.