TERRE HAUTE —
In the first, second and fourth quarters of Saturday afternoon’s homecoming game at Cook Stadium, the Rose-Hulman offense played like the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, frequently plodding through three-and-outs and fumbling away the football.
Thankfully for the Engineers and their enthusiastic supporters, the Rose offense more closely resembled the Denver Broncos in the third quarter, exploding for three touchdowns that were desperately needed to secure a 23-19 triumph over Defiance in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference opener for both squads.
Rose-Hulman’s third-period TDs came on a 1-yard run by Danya Francis, a swing pass from Ryan Landwehr to speedy Aaron Abbott that ended up covering 53 yards and a 6-yard run by Landwehr.
That followed a first half in which the Engineers accumulated a whopping 74 yards of total offense (sarcasm alert).
“We were just dead,” Abbott said, trying to describe what went wrong in the opening 30 minutes when all the Engineers could manage points-wise was a 35-yard field goal by Matt Angel in the final minute of the second quarter.
“We went into the locker room [at halftime] and we had a good talk. We knew we had to mentally focus. Then we came out [for the second half] and that’s exactly what we did. We executed and did what we wanted.”
“We kinda came out flat,” Landwehr added. “We had a few three-and-out drives. We weren’t getting it going offensively. Our defense was outstanding, holding them to 13 points. … At halftime, we pulled it together. We got the energy up. Then we got a couple explosive plays [in the second half] and we got the sideline going. Everything started working. It all clicked.”
Rose coach Jeff Sokol admitted that the first half was not pretty from his perspective.
“On offense, we were horrible … really struggled,” he told the Tribune-Star. “There was some stuff that we saw on tape [about Defiance’s defense] that we thought we could take advantage of — a lot of runs on the perimeter and things like that — that just weren’t there in the game. They did a really nice job of defending us.”
Sokol said he didn’t offer his players a halftime speech worthy of selling the movie rights, but they did have a heartfelt talk that seemed to help.
“I just told them that we had no energy on the sideline, we made no big plays on offense and that they had to find a way to step up and make plays and create the energy,” he explained. “If we could make the plays, the energy would come. … They had great energy the entire second half and the crowd was great.”
After a scoreless first frame, Defiance jumped ahead 7-0 with the help of quarterback Sean Washington’s 1-yard touchdown run early in the second period.
The Yellow Jackets from Ohio increased their lead to 10-0 on Spencer Saunders’ 28-yard field goal midway through the same quarter.
Then the home team finally started showing signs of life on offense, starting from its own 32-yard line. Racking up first downs with modest gains of 3 to 7 yards per play, the Engineers took advantage of a defensive-holding penalty to move into scoring position and set up Angel’s field goal, which cut their deficit to 10-3.
That wasn’t the halftime score, however. Defiance efficiently used its four plays after the kickoff to advance into its own field-goal territory, which Saunders converted from 32 yards with 0:03 showing on the scoreboard.
An inspired Rose-Hulman team took the opening possession of the second half and marched 69 yards on 11 plays, culminating with Francis’ run, to pull within 13-10.
Following a Defiance three-and-out, the Engineers needed only six plays to reach paydirt this time. Abbott took the swing pass from Landwehr and sprinted away from the Yellow Jackets’ defenders up the right sideline for his crowd-pleasing score.
“There was great blocking,” Abbott emphasized. “Connor Gerhart, he chop-blocked a great player, No. 24 on their team [cornerback Tony Sierra]. Zac Erba … they all did a great job. They opened it up and all I had to do was just run.”
“He’s a playmaker,” Landwehr said of Abbott, a sophomore wide receiver. “We like to get him the ball and see what he can do with it.”
A bad snap prevented the PAT, so the Engineers’ first lead of the game remained 16-13 midway through the third quarter.
But it didn’t stay that way for long.
After the visitors’ next drive quickly stalled, their punt was blocked by Rose’s Jake Dye and recovered on the Defiance 37.
Six plays later, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Landwehr put his head down and bulled up the middle for his 6-yard TD and Angel nailed this extra point to pad the Engineers’ cushion to 23-13 with 4:06 left in the third period.
All of a sudden, Rose-Hulman was an offensive juggernaut. Go figure.
The score didn’t change until the 6:00 mark of the fourth frame — by then, Rose was back in its Jaguars stage offensively — when Defiance safety Andrew Feldhaus stripped the ball from running back Greg Lee and scampered 55 yards for a touchdown that put the shocked fans’ homecoming celebration on hold.
This time, it was the Yellow Jackets’ turn to botch the PAT — thanks to a block by Rose-Hulman’s Andrew Okruch — and the score remained 23-19 in the Engineers’ favor.
Neither team mounted much of an offense for the rest of the contest, although Defiance forced its way into one final possession that started at its 46 with 1:33 to go.
But it went nowhere fast. A sack by D.J. Lawson, another sack shared by Cody Rivers and Dean Griffing and an interception of Washington by defensive back Anthony Adamo sealed the outcome for Sokol’s squad.
“I loved it,” Rose’s third-year coach admitted. “What more could you ask for? It was a beautiful thing.”
Sokol said he would take the sometimes-ugly, sometimes-spectacular victory and he would hate to imagine his mood had the Engineers dropped to 0-3 for the season.
“There was a sense of urgency from the team all week,” he mentioned. “No one wanted to be 0-3. We weren’t very happy being 0-2. But we said going into the week that we would trade a win over Defiance to be 1-0 in the conference for a win over either one of the [non-conference] teams we played to open the season with.”