TERRE HAUTE —
Sure, Jeff Sokol would like to have earned his first “W” as a head coach sooner than Saturday afternoon.
But he wasn’t complaining about when he obtained it after his Rose-Hulman team rolled to a 31-20 homecoming triumph over visiting Hanover in Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) football at Cook Stadium.
Soaked from a quickie Gatorade shower delivered by his players, a smiling Sokol said: “It feels great. It feels great. We worked really hard for this. The coaching staff prepared all week… We were hungry for this win and we were going to do anything we could to get it.”
Running back Kyle Kovach led the Engineers’ offense with 124 yards rushing and one touchdown on 36 carries, while senior defensive end Ben Parker racked up 2.5 sacks and senior safety Matt Green recorded 15 tackles (11 solos and four assisted) and two sacks to pace their defense.
Kovach was among the Rose players happy to see Sokol notch the first victory of his career.
“He’s been working hard,” Kovach pointed out. “All the assistant coaches, everybody. . . Everything was clicking this game. We just had to put everything together and fire on all cylinders.”
Sokol appreciated Kovach’s efforts as well.
“Kyle is our workhorse,” the first-year coach emphasized. “We knew they were going to be tough on defense. We had to scratch and claw for every yard that we got running the football. Kyle just kept fighting and kept his legs churning and he did an outstanding job of taking care of the football.”
The Engineers (1-2 overall, 1-0 HCAC) jumped ahead 24-0 in the first quarter. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound Kovach busted up the middle and outran a couple defenders for a 49-yard TD to open the scoring.
“The [offensive] line set everything up.,” Kovach stressed. “They had great blocks today.”
With 3:25 to go in the first period, freshman Grant DePalma shot through the line to block a Hanover punt and junior teammate Alex Sonneberger returned it 7 yards for another TD.
“Scoop and score for a touchdown,” Sokol mentioned. “Alex Sonneberger, great play.”
One play after the ensuing kickoff, Rose-Hulman defensive lineman Dean Griffing recovered a fumble by Hanover starting quarterback Dexter Britt on the Panthers’ 24-yard line. After one no-gain play, the home team padded its cushion to 21-0 when junior QB Mitch Snyder of Casey, Ill., fired a strike to a diving Dominic Sena in the end zone.
Later, a high snap over the Hanover quarterback’s head on fourth down resulted in a 25-yard loss and return of possession to the Engineers on the visitors’ 16. Rose didn’t reach paydirt this time, but it did come away with a 28-yard field goal by Nick Schneider before the end of the quarter.
Before Rose-Hulman fans could get too comfortable, however, the Panthers cut their deficit to 24-17 by halftime — thanks to two TD tosses from back-up quarterback C.J. Croft to Dwayne Eubanks (covering 42 and 29 yards) sandwiched around a 21-yard field goal by Dylan Dunlop.
“We didn’t want the same thing that happened last year,” Kovach admitted, referring to a 52-31 loss at Hanover. “We had a big lead last year too and we knew they could come back again [this year], so we just kept pushing.”
The only touchdown of the third frame was a Snyder pass that deflected off the hand of two different Hanover defenders before landing in the hands of teammate Parris Gray, who hauled it in for a 23-yarder.
While Croft kept the chains moving for the Panthers, the only second-half points they could manufacture came on a 39-yard field goal by Dunlop with 14:15 left in the contest.
“We came out and played phenomenal in the first quarter, then took a little bit of a step back in the second quarter,” Sokol assessed. “In the second half, we dominated possession and the defense played great again.”
Five of Rose’s seven sacks occurred in the second half, which made finishing drives difficult for Hanover.
“Coach [defensive coordinator Brian] Vaughn coached us well,” Parker noted. “We were ready for everything. We kinda went down a little bit in the second quarter, but we bounced back in the second half and played a pretty good game.”
Now Rose-Hulman must focus on a road game next Saturday against HCAC foe Manchester, but players and coaches may take a little time today to enjoy the taste of their first victory of 2011.
“I think the first one’s always the hardest to get, so I think we can roll it now,” Parker said. “We can still win conference.”
“We’re right where we want to be in the conference,” Sokol added. “It is a confidence builder.”
• Rose notes — The Engineers tied two unique school records Saturday — most punts in game (11) and most punting yards in a game (424). Rose’s punter is sophomore Eric Schaible.
Sokol attributed part of that to the fast pace of the game and the five turnovers (three fumbles and two interceptions) committed by Hanover.
“That’s the way we play,” he explained. “We try to snap the ball as fast as we can. There are a lot of plays and a lot of possessions.
“Our punter is one of our most lethal weapons. He’s the best [NCAA Division III] punter in the country and he proved it today. If he’s not the All-American punter [at the end of the season], I want to see who is.”
The original records were set by Brett Bueltel (11 punts against Trinity in October 2004) and Grant Sharp (424 yards punting against Rhodes in November 1986).
• Registering Rose-Hulman’s two interceptions were senior cornerback Bobby Short of Martinsville, Ill., and sophomore linebacker Cody Rivers.