HILLSBORO — The mist in his eyes and cracking in his voice told the story.
McPherson College football coach Steve Fox was practically lost for words Saturday afternoon after his Bulldogs staged a tremendous fourth-quarter rally to upset No. 22-ranked Tabor College 15-14, easily the biggest win of the season.
Despite the spate of injuries that have decimated their depth, the Bulldogs have clawed their way back to the .500 mark in the KCAC at 3-3 and are 3-5 overall. They knocked the Bluejays out of the title hunt and national playoff picture, as the teams actually are now tied for fourth place.
It was an incredible effort by the Bulldogs, whose defense held the fort until the moribund offense finally caught up, with Kelly Cordova’s two fourth-quarter touchdown runs leading the comeback.
Fox formerly was an assistant coach at Tabor and had a lot of well-wishers congratulate him after the game, so it was an emotional day for him. His defense absolutely stuffed the NAIA’s No. 2 rushing offense to just 95 yards on 51 attempts, less than two yards a carry. Tabor had entered the day with 2,442 rushing yards in seven games (348 a game).
“I’ve got to give props to coach (E.J.) Peterson, my co-DC (defensive coordinator). Me and him have studied this offense for days upon months to know the ins and outs for this week,” Fox said.
It appeared Mac was going to lead 3-0 at the half on a 23-yard Christian Guerra Barbosa field goal, which had been set up by a Tabor fumble that was recovered by Evan Clary. Right before the half, though, Cordova fumbled at his own 26 and the Bluejays cashed in with 18 seconds left in the half on a TD pass from Jordan Bernhardy to Jonah McKee.
Keeping the Bulldogs afloat was defensive back Ashton Serpas, who blocked two Tabor field goal attempts, and Trea Lott, who picked off a pass in the end zone to thwart a potential Bluejay TD.
Tabor appeared to grab control of the game late in the third quarter on a D’Marco Smith 1-yard run to make it 14-3. With the Bluejays’ stout defense and a Bulldog offense that continually misfired, that 11-point lead appeared secure.
Mac finally took advantage of a stiff defensive stop and a short field to cut the lead to 14-9 on a plunge by Cordova. The Bulldogs went for two and failed, but there was still 6 minutes left in the game.
The turning point came when Serpas moments later came up with his second interception of the day. The Bulldogs put together a methodical drive that not only gave them the lead, but melted much of the clock. Cordova scored on a 3-yard run with 2:33 left and the Mac defense remained steadfast by forcing Tabor to give the ball back on downs.
“I knew our safeties (Serpas and Lott) were going to have to have a big day,” Fox said. “And they did.”
This was a defensive lover’s dream. Mac totaled only 211 yards and the Bluejays 237, as they had 142 through the air. But Tabor is a run-first team and the Bulldogs forced them out of their game plan. In one game this year, the Bluejays actually did not throw a single pass, but they heaved the pig an unheard of — by their standards — 29 times.
“I knew the more they passed, we had them out of their comfort zone,” Fox said. “We just had to make more plays on pass defense and we did.”
MC’s Miles Balthazor, finally healthy after two weeks, pounded out 76 yards on 19 carries with some tough inside running and Cordova ran the read-option well to finish with 73 on 20 tries. Owen Cole was the Bluejay leader with a paltry 37 yards. Jimmy Wilson had 13 tackles for the Bulldogs.
Mac stays on the road for the sixth time in nine games Saturday when it plays at third-place Sterling.
• STATISTICS •
• Mac Listed First •
First Downs — 14, 16. Rushes-Yards — 49-162; 51-95. Passing — 9-26-1-49; 12-29-3-142. Fumbles-Lost — 2-1; 3-1. Punts-Avg. — 9-25.9; 5-33.0. Penalties-Yards — 3-25, 4-35.
• INDIVIDUAL LEADRS •
• Rushing •
Mac — Balthazor 19-76, Cordova 20-73.
Tabor — Cole 10-37.
• Passing •
Mac — Cordova 9-26-1-49.
Tabor — Bernhardy 12-28-2-142, Cole 0-1-1-0.
• Receiving •
Mac — Jones 3-20, Johnston 2-14, Walker 2-10, Balthazor 1-3.
Tabor — Coleman 4-27.