OLATHE — MidAmerica Nazarene thought it had turned the lights out on McPherson College in the first half of Saturday’s KCAC-Heart of America Challenge football matchup.
The Pioneers were close to perfect in constructing a 31-7 lead that figured to mushroom after the break given how the first half had transpired.
But the Bulldogs’ own light switch was flipped on in the second half.
The Bulldogs outscored the Pioneers 21-3 to make a boisterous crowd somewhat nervous in the final couple of minutes, but MidAmerica held on for the 34-28 decision.
It was a complete 180 after the half for Mac, which looked physically overmatched in the first 30 minutes as the Pioneers piled up 333 yards.
“We had a heart-to-heart at halftime,” said Mac coach Steve Fox, who indicated it may have been as much of a mental turnaround as a physical turnaround. “The sleeping giant is awoken.”
The Bulldogs could attribute their renaissance to a defense that figured out it had the wherewithal to stay with MidAmerica and the difference new quarterback JT Levenseller made to the offense.
Levenseller, a one-time quarterback at Washington State many a year ago and a redshirt last year, did not play in the opener as he awaited the green light from the national clearing house. He finally became eligible this week and on his first pass of the game fired a 65-yard TD frozen rope to Stef’on Walker, which tied the game at 7 just 5 minutes in.
But the rest of the half was all MidAmerica, as Javon Taylor’s 134 yards rushing and two touchdowns keyed the 31-7 lead.
But after getting things righted at halftime, Levenseller led an explosive Bulldog offense that outgained MidAmerica 222-134 in the second half. While he was just 10 of 26 for the game, it was good for 221 yards and two touchdowns, the second going to Andrew Johnston. Terrance Jones, who churned out 64 of the toughest yards you’ll ever see on 24 carries against the physical Pioneers, scored on two short runs.
Levenseller’s TD pass to Johnston came with 2:52 to go to make it a 34-28 game, but the Bulldogs couldn’t get the defensive stop they needed and the Pioneers were able to exhale. Mac earlier had executed a picture-perfect onside kick by Christian Guerra-Barbosa.
Levenseller, who was under siege all night but used his feet to extricate himself time and again, gives the Bulldogs an improved outlook as they head into conference play next week.
“He’s rusty. He hasn’t played a game since he was 19 and he’s 26,” Fox said.
Fox, the team’s defensive coordinator before being elevated to the head job, liked how his defense stepped up after the break. It didn’t hurt that Taylor did not play in the second half with a hamstring injury, but it seemed to play with much more fervor.
“We had to make one small adjustment,” Fox said. “Going into this game with no film, it put us behind the 8-ball. It took us a little longer to make those adjustments.”
Fox had asked new MidAmerica coach Brian Willmer to exchange practice film, a common practice. But he refused and since the Bulldogs already had played a game, the Pioneers had a leg up in preparation.
“There’s a lot of good things (to take away from the game),” Fox said. “Defensively, we got more wrinkles ironed out after halftime. Offensively, obviously getting JT in there and getting him game reps... we brought this family closer together.”
All-KCAC preseason pick Trent Forrester enhanced his resume with 12 tackles, while Charles Boosa was next with nine. Jimmy Wilson had a another big game, forcing a fumble, coming up with two tackles for losses and adding five tackles despite the fact the Pioneers ran away from his side much of the night.
Former McPherson High standout Tanner Hamilton started at safety for the Pioneers and came up with a fumble recovery.
Mac, which already has logged more than 900 miles round-trip in the first two games, makes the short 25-mile ride to North Newton on Saturday to play Bethel in the KCAC opener. The Bulldogs play four of their first five games on the road.
• STATISTICS •
• Mac Listed First •
First Downs — 17, 22. Rushes-Yards — 40-135; 39-235. Passing — 10-26-1-221; 17-29-0-232. Punts-Avg. — 7-22.9; 4-32.5. Fumbles-Lost — 2-2; 1-0. Penalties-Yards — 4-36, 7-84.
• INDIVIDUAL LEADERS •
• Rushing •
Mac — Jones 24-64, Levenseller 12-57.
MidAmerica — Taylor 13-134, Quainoo 6-34.
• Passing •
Mac — Levenseller 10-26-1-221.
MidAmerica — Hedlund 17-29-0-232.
• Receiving •
Mac — Johnston 4-79, Walker 2-86.
MidAmerica — Fields 5-93.