TERRE HAUTE —
Rose-Hulman junior Kyle Kovach didn’t top 100 yards rushing Saturday like he usually does.
This time, the talented running back from Munster had to “settle” for 85 yards against Mount St. Joseph at Cook Stadium.
But he did score two first-quarter touchdowns — one on a 27-yard pass from quarterback Mitch Snyder and the other on a 7-yard run — to help the Engineers win the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference football matchup 20-14. He also hauled in a team-high six passes for an extra 67 yards.
Although Kovach has not thrown any passes this season, he’s done just about everything else that first-year coach Jeff Sokol has asked him to do.
n Kovach ranks third in the nation in the latest NCAA Division III statistics for all-purpose yards per game. Through six games (three wins and three losses), his average is 223.17 yards. That includes rushing, receiving, kickoff returns and punt returns.
n Kovach ranks first in the HCAC and 26th in the nation in rushing yards per game with 114.33. He’s also tied for 73rd in the nation in points per game with 8.0, thanks to eight touchdowns.
If Sokol asked Kovach to sweep out the Cook Stadium bleachers after fans left a game, he would probably do that too.
“He’s a very versatile player,” Sokol said after Saturday’s contest. “We ask him to do a lot. We ask him to carry the load for us. I’ve never had more confidence putting the ball in a player’s hands. He doesn’t turn it over. He runs hard whenever he has the ball. He plays hard every snap, whether he’s got it or not.
“He’s just an outstanding player. We love having him here.”
Sokol remembers when he first heard about Kovach. It was in December 2010, right after Rose had announced that Sokol was leaving the University of Chicago as an assistant coach to become the Engineers’ head coach.
“We had a guy from Andrean [Kovach’s old high school] at the University of Chicago,” Sokol mentioned. “He came up to me and said as soon as he found out I got the [Rose-Hulman] head-coaching job: ‘Kyle Kovach is an unbelievable player. You’re going to love coaching him.’ He couldn’t have been more right.”
Meanwhile, Kovach is enjoying his experiences with Sokol and the 2011 version of the Engineers’ offense, which allowed him to post four consecutive games with at least 100 yards on the ground before Saturday.
“It’s always the offensive line,” the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Kovach replied when asked about reasons for his success.
“You can’t do it by yourself. Coach has faith in us and the running game. He knows we’re going to get yards. Our thing is we try to get [at least] 4 yards every play.
“For me, it’s all about working hard in practice, me and the other running backs just pushing ourselves … no one taking it easy.”
Sokol said Kovach is one of the team leaders off the field as well.
“He’s a captain as a junior,” the Engineers’ coach pointed out. “In the off-season, he gets on guys, makes them be responsible. He keeps himself in great physical condition [with weightlifting and cardio workouts]. He has to be in great condition to do all the things we ask him to do.”
Kovach, who idolized Walter Payton as a youngster and admires current Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte nowadays, emphasized that he doesn’t mind doing what ever it takes to help Rose pile up victories.
“It’s a challenge,” he admitted. “I played both ways [offense and defense] in high school. But college is a way different game. You’ve just got to prepare yourself, work hard in the offseason and keep hitting the weight room during the season so you don’t lose anything. You’ve gotta be tough. You’ve gotta handle it.”
Kovach said finishing second in the HCAC would be “a great season” if it happens. The Engineers and Hanover are tied for second at 3-1, while Franklin leads at 5-0.
Sokol and Kovach are not expecting Franklin to lose for the rest of the regular season — although the Grizzlies do visit Hanover on Nov. 12 — so HCAC runner-up is probably the most realistic goal at this stage.
“We always push for first and try to win conference,” Kovach explained. “It’s unfortunate what happened to us in the Franklin game [a 55-24 home loss Oct. 8]. We’ll just try to go as high as we can. We don’t want to lose another game this year.”