BLUEJAYS FOOTBALL: Bluejays hold off PioneersWORTHINGTON — Twice trailing by 20 points and forced to change quarterbacks midway through Saturday afternoon’s Minnesota College Athletic Conference non-division football game at Trojan Field, the Minnesota West Bluejays put together an incredible second-half comeback and claimed a thrilling 41-40 victory over the Northland Pioneers.
By: Lucas Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Twice trailing by 20 points and forced to change quarterbacks midway through Saturday afternoon’s Minnesota College Athletic Conference non-division football game at Trojan Field, the Minnesota West Bluejays put together an incredible second-half comeback and claimed a thrilling 41-40 victory over the Northland Pioneers.
Minnesota West scored the go-ahead points — a touchdown and a gutsy two-point conversion with 1:16 remaining in the fourth quarter to take the lead for the first time all day — and then got two defensive stops in the closing seconds to seal the deal in a wild affair.
“I’m so proud of this team,” summed up Minnesota West head coach Jeff Linder. “The perseverance of my boys — our players and our coaching staff included — is unbelievable. This team sticks together at all times, keeps working hard and always believes that we have a chance to win at the end — and that’s exactly what happened in this game, as we found a way to get the job done in exciting fashion.”
Six different players scored a touchdown for the Bluejays, who trailed 33-13 at the 12:39 mark of the third quarter. That was the second 20-point deficit that Minnesota West faced, as Northland jumped out to an impressive 20-0 lead just eight minutes into the first period.
However, the Bluejays gradually chipped away each time and rallied behind a number of clutch plays — including a pair of fake punts that assistant coach Brad Holinka helped draw up.
“The bag of tricks is now empty, as I’ve got to find something else to put back in it,” Holinka said in reference to his special teams unit that contributed greatly to Minnesota West’s win. “This was a fun game to be a part of and a great win for us. We had so many guys step up and make big plays in critical situations — which is what it takes to be a successful team.”
One of those players was Greg Gainey, who filled in at quarterback after starter Logan Massop was sidelined with an apparent arm injury on the final play of the first half. Gainey played the entire second half as the triggerman for the Bluejays’ offense, helping Minnesota West score four touchdowns and also crossing the goal line himself with the go-ahead two-point conversion.
The Bluejays, who remain undefeated with a perfect 4-0 record, outgained the Pioneers (2-2) 424-333 in total yardage. Minnesota West ran the ball 50 times for 256 yards and also completed 12 of 25 passes for 168 yards.
Northland takes very quick 20-0 lead
Northland, which rushed 37 times for 162 yards and was 19-for-42 with 171 yards through the air, dominated the game’s early stages with a trio of touchdowns in the first eight minutes.
Constant Jackson returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, slipping one tackle at midfield and running virtually untouched down the right sideline to the end zone. Jerry Guerrero kicked the extra point, as the Pioneers were up 7-0 with just 13 seconds off the clock.
Northland’s Robert Gausi then intercepted a pass on Minnesota West’s second play of the ensuing possession, helping set up a 34-yard scoring series for the Pioneers.
Darian Nelson, who gained a game-high 120 yards rushing on 23 attempts, started the drive with a 13-yard dash. Edin Kovak (19-for-40, 171 yards and four touchdown passes) later completed a 14-yard aerial to Michael Washington (three receptions for 43 yards) to give the Pioneers a first-and-goal at the four-yard line.
Kovak then completed his second pass of the game two plays later, this time firing a four-yard touchdown strike to Tyquese Briggs (four catches for 36 yards, two touchdowns) at the 12:32 mark. The PAT kick was no good, as Northland led 13-0.
The Pioneers followed up with a three-and-out defensively before driving 67 yards on 11 plays to widen the gap. Working out of a spread formation, Kovak completed passes to Deonte Dunklin (nine yards), Nelson (six yards), Tyler Anderson (six yards), Briggs (seven yards) and Nelson (17 yards) to move Northland down the field.
Kovak’s sixth completion of the drive was an eight-yard touchdown pass to Dunklin on a fade to the back left corner of the end zone. Guerrero was good with the PAT kick, increasing the Pioneers’ lead to 20-0 with 7:04 showing on the clock.
“We came out flat to start the game,” Linder said. “It didn’t seem like we were ready to play from the get-go, and that was a little bit disappointing. But, at the same time, you have to give credit to Northland and realize at that point that it’s very early in the game and there’s a lot of time left to make some things happen on our part.”
Bluejays work their way back into contention
Minnesota West did indeed create some excitement the rest of the way, beginning with a huge 48-yard connection from Massop (10-for-18, 143 yards) to James Stutz on the first play of the ensuing drive. A pair of seven-yard runs followed, as De’Shawn Gohl (11 carries for 36 yards) and Kevin Harris (11 carries for 71 yards) each ran the ball hard inside the 20-yard line.
Harris plunged into the end zone on his carry, getting the Bluejays on the board with 6:10 to go. The PAT kick was no good, as Minnesota West trailed 20-6.
Northland answered with a drive from its own 35 to Minnesota West’s 23, but the Bluejays got a stop and took over at their own 27-yard line. A 32-yard rumble along the left sideline by Harris on the first play sparked a six-play, 73-yard scoring series for the black-and-blue hosts.
Massop and Rex Johnson (four receptions for 47 yards) hooked up twice on the march — once for a 15-yard gain on third-and-eight and again for a 20-yard touchdown as time expired in the first quarter — to make it a 20-13 ballgame (Tyler Smith PAT kick good) after 15 action-packed minutes.
The scoring slowed down drastically in the second quarter, as a 19-yard touchdown pass from Kovak to Briggs — plus a PAT kick by Guerrero with 10:05 to go — accounted for the only points of the period and gave the Pioneers a 27-13 halftime lead.
Minnesota West nearly had a matching touchdown, as D’lorian Jordan (four receptions for 48 yards) got loose for a 41-yard kick return and also reeled in a 22-yard pass from Massop. But Northland’s Israel Guy picked off a pass in the end zone on a fourth-and-six play from the nine, keeping the Bluejays from pulling closer.
Minnesota West’s DeAndre Ulmer intercepted a pass later in the quarter, as the Bluejays were solid defensively for the rest of the half and went into the break down by 14 points.
“Our defense did a great job after Northland’s initial burst of points,” Linder said. “We got some big stops when we really needed them late, and overall, we did a better job of making Northland work for their yards and points as the game progressed.”
Minnesota West roars back in second half
The Bluejays started the second half with the ball, and after a nice 14-yard run by Gohl, were soon forced to punt. But the snap was too high to handle, and the Pioneers took over at Minnesota West’s 13-yard line.
Northland took advantage and punched in a touchdown on a six-yard pass from Kovak to Aaron Doriat for a 33-13 lead at the 12:39 mark of the third quarter. The Bluejays’ Michael Knight blocked the extra point and had an exciting runback all the way to the Pioneers’ 15-yard line before getting knocked out-of-bounds.
That play and a blocked punt by Kevin Leflore a bit later — in conjunction with an improving defensive effort and a multi-faceted offensive approach — seemed to spark Minnesota West’s improbable comeback the rest of the way.
Leflore burst around the edge just like Knight did earlier and blocked a Pioneers’ punt, giving the Bluejays the ball at the Northland 16.
A five-yard loss ensued, but Julian Robinson ripped off a nifty 21-yard touchdown sprint right up the middle on the very next play. Smith’s PAT kick trimmed the gap to 33-20 with 8:54 remaining.
Minnesota West’s Jake Reiss then recovered a Pioneers’ fumble on the next series, and the Bluejays cashed in with a 12-play, 55-yard touchdown drive to cut the margin even further.
With Gainey (16 carries for 46 yards; 2-for-7 passing, 25 yards) orchestrating the offense out of the “Wildcat” formation, Minnesota West moved the ball well in a variety of ways.
Gainey kept the ball several times for positive gains, while Zach Norman scampered for a key 21-yard surge. Enoch Smith — on his only carry of the day — capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown run on a dive to the right, and Smith’s PAT kick made it 33-27 with 1:36 to go.
“Greg did an outstanding job of coming in and leading our offense in the second half,” Linder said. “We had a lot of different guys step up in the face of adversity, and that shows a lot about the character of our team.”
Reuben Linton III was the next Bluejay to deliver a big play. Early in the fourth quarter, with the Bluejays apparently lined up to punt the ball away from their own 47-yard line, Linton III received the snap and took off running toward the left sideline.
The fake punt worked out tremendously for the Bluejays, as Linton III stayed on his feet along the boundary and somehow ran all the way to the end zone — after cutting back across the middle of the field — for a 53-yard touchdown. The exciting play tied the score at 33 (PAT kick blocked) with 11:47 to play.
Northland regained a 40-33 lead when Novak finished a 13-play, 63-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge. Guerrero’s PAT kick made it a seven-point spread with 6:21 to go.
However, Minnesota West responded with an 11-play, 64-yard scoring drive. And, once again, the Bluejays benefitted from a fake-punt run by Linton III — this one for eight yards on fourth-and-four from their own 42.
Gainey engineered Minnesota West over the final 50 yards, beginning with a 13-yard keeper. Gainey found Anson Mareus for a nine-yard gain and then scrambled for nine yards a bit later in the possession.
Gainey then rolled to his right and flipped a pass to Jordan wide open in the back of the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown to make it 40-39 with 1:16 to go.
Rather than kick the extra point to try and tie the score, the Bluejays called a timeout and decided to go for the two-point conversion. Gainey kept the ball on a run up the middle, breaking the plane at the goal line and giving Minnesota West a 41-40 lead.
“We talked things over and decided to go for the win at home,” Linder said. “We thought that the momentum of the game had swung in our favor and that going for two was the right thing to do at that point. It certainly worked out well for us.”
Northland used all three of its timeouts in the last minute, but was unable to threaten to score on either of its final two drives — sealing a dramatic one-point win for the Bluejays.
“I have super assistant coaches, and Brad Holinka played a key role in calling those fake punts,” Linder said. “Those were two of the biggest plays of the game and created lots of excitement for us. They were plays that we needed and ultimately helped us earn a fantastic win.”
Matt Shivley and Brandon King led Minnesota West’s defense with 10 tackles apiece. Shivley and Cha’Ron Thompson each had a quarterback sack for the Bluejays, who travel to Willmar Saturday (6 p.m.) to take on Ridgewater.
Northland 20 7 6 7 — 40
MN West 13 0 14 14 — 41