Baker defense keys victory
Big plays and a healthy dose of defense kept Baker University unbeaten in Liston Stadium this season as the Wildcats handed the Avila Eagles a 28-7 loss Saturday.
But, mostly, it was that healthy dose of defense that helped the Wildcats grab the homecoming win in their third start of the season at Liston. BU held Avila to a measly 44 yards on the ground and 45 through the air for a total of 89 yards. The Cats also forced two turnovers.
"Defensively, I thought we dominated," said first-year head coach Mike Grossner. "Offensively, we sputtered at times, but made some big plays."
There were a couple of those big plays early. On a fourth down situation at midfield midway through the first quarter, Baker opted for a pass and picked up a first down to charge up the team and the crowd. However, the Wildcats couldn't cash it in.
Baker then forced another three-and-out on Avila, which set up another of those big plays. The Eagles punted and Baker freshman DJ Carter slashed his way across the field for a 58-yard punt return that put the Wildcats on top at 7-0. They never lost that lead.
"We did the fake punt, which got us field position," said Grossner. "Unfortunately, we didn't score, but we got another three-and-out and got the punt return. I think that alleviated the pain of not scoring on the fake punt."
Grossner has made a habit of the fake punts and other trick plays. It's brought a level of excitement to the team and the fans.
"Yeah, we've got to do that," he said of the gambles. "When you're average athletically, you've got to gain some advantage somehow. It's exciting for the kids to know it's coming, too."
But, the tricks weren't over yet. Baker had been establishing the running game with standout All-American John Reeves from the outset. Just into the second quarter, Baker was driving again. Reeves, a 5-foot-11, 215-pounder from Palestine, Texas, took a pitch out and headed to the right. But, this time he stopped and lofted a pass to Gerrad Speer, a 5-11, 185-pound senior fullback from Scott City, for an 11-yard touchdown.
"All week we tried that in practice and I guaranteed them it would work," he said. "It hadn't worked in practice, but it did in the game. It's a tribute to John for how hard he runs. Defenses have to play him honest."
Avila got on the board to pull within 14-7 with five minutes left in the half. But, Baker answered just before the homecoming festivities when quarterback Brian Sheppard, a 5-11, 185-pound junior transfer from Destrehan, La., ran it in from four yards out. That gave BU a 21-7 advantage.
After slugging it out in a scoreless third quarter, Baker got the final points of the sun-filled day when Sheppard hit Ryan Pitts, a 6-5, 196-pound junior from Carson, Calif., with a 27-yard scoring strike.
Reeves wound up with 143 yards on 31 carries, as well as his scoring pass. Sheppard was 12 of 32 for 154 yards and three interceptions. Pitts topped the receivers with five catches for 80 yards and the score and Keenan Ganz chipped in with four catches and 67 yards. BU had 167 yards on the ground and 198 through the air for a total of 365 yards. That was well ahead of Avila's total of 89 yards.
"We caught a team in transition from running the option to throwing the football," Grossner said of the Eagles' offensive output. "That contributed to some of our success, also."
Leading the defense was Blake Pearson and Jeff Frenya, both who had six tackles, including three solos. But, it was the entire defense that was all over the field all day. A total of 26 players had at least one tackle.
"Our kids all year have played hard," said Grossner. "I haven't doubted that for a minute. We've made some mental mistakes. But playing hard is in the makeup and character of the kids."
The victory moved Baker's record to 3-2 overall and in Heart of America Athletic Conference play. Avila dropped to 1-4 and 1-3. Baker has a "bye" week with no game scheduled Saturday. Next up for the Wildcats is an Oct. 16 date at Culver-Stockton in Canton, Mo.
"It's a much needed bye week," he said. "We're going to practice a little and heal up. We'll come back next week and get ready for a road trip."
While Baker is 3-0 at Liston, it is 0-2 on the road.
"It has been home cooking," said Grossner. "We need to go on the road and figure this out. It's a longer trip and we'll spend the night and be together as a team. Maybe that will change the outcome."
After that game will be the Oct. 23 home game where Charlie Richard Day festivities will be conducted. There will be a full slate of events and details will be included in future issues of the Signal.