DUBUQUE, Iowa (Duhawks.com) - It had been almost two full years since the Loras College football team had won in the Rock Bowl. That abruptly came to an end Saturday afternoon as the Duhawks overwhelmed the Elmhurst College Blue Jays, and won on opening day for the first time since 2005, 39-17.
Coming off a 4-6 season, the Bluejays got the first break of the game when Loras sophomore Danny Willis fumbled the Elmhurst punt inside the Duhawk 10-yard line. However, the Loras defense stood tall and refused to break, keeping the Bluejays out of the end zone, stopping them just short of the goal line on fourth down. On the ensuing possession, Loras' drive would be short-lived as junior Nate Carrier fumbled and gave Elmhurst great starting position which they capitalized on for the first score of the game on a touchdown run by Elmhurst quarterback Joe Camiliere.
Refusing to be deterred by the early deficit, the Duhawks responded on their very next drive, going 65 yards on seven plays, which was capped off by a four-yard touchdown run by senior Calvin Smith. Senior quarterback Dylan Jones was able to spread the ball out on the drive before letting Smith get the Duhawks on the board. On the PAT, junior Dan Vatch caught Elmhurst sleeping, and ran in the two-point coversion to give the Duhawks an 8-7 lead.
The lead would be short-lived, however, as Elmhurst marched down the field going 70 yards in just five plays. Camiliere was dominant on the ground for the Blue Jays in the first quarter and gave Elmhurst a 14-8 lead after an 18-yard scamper, resulting in six points. Over the course of the first half, Defensive Coordinator Josh Edwards and his defense took notes and adjusted their schemes to find an answer to the Bluejay attack.
After a field goal by freshman Mason Quigley, the Duhawks took the lead for good after Jones found junior Jon Powers in the end zone, giving Loras an 18-14 halftime lead. Jones took to the air and snatched the pass from Jones over the head of the Elmhurst cornerback. Loras marched down the field, totaling 60 yards in 10 plays.
Elmhurst's next drive would end after freshman Maurice Young nabbed the first of his three interceptions on the day. The three interceptions ties a school record for most interceptions in a game, which was set by Mike Heiberger in 2000 and Terry Breitbach in 1980. "We had a great game plan coming into today, and my coaches and teammates put me in a great position to make plays," Young said.
Unfortunately for Loras, they couldn't add to their lead off the turnover, and entered the locker room with the 18-14 lead.
Opening the second half, the Bluejays scratched and clawed their way to within one, thanks to a 21-yard field goal by Brett Bayer, to make it 18-17. Loras' defensive backbone stood strong and remained resilient, preventing Elmhurst from mounting a comeback.
On fourth down, a Loras punt by freshman Cruz Fedler hung up in the air just enough to allow the punt coverage team for Loras to swarm Tyler Smith, the returnman for the Bluejays. Smith muffed the punt and freshman Kevin Green was quick to pounce on the loose ball.
The ensuing drive started off on bad terms, as senior Dylan Jones was sacked for a loss of ten yards. As it turns out, it was all a part of the plan, as on the next snap, Carrier blew past the defense for a 49-yard touchdown run to give Loras the 25-17 lead.
The big special teams play of the afternoon came when sophomore Austin Epple broke through the offensive line and blocked the Tom Finucane punt. The La Porte, Indiana native picked up the loose ball and returned it inside the 10-yard line. Just a few plays later, it was Calvin Smith again as he powered through the line of scrimmage to reach the end zone for the second time on the day, giving Loras the 32-17 lead.
"With the great preparation our coaching staff put us through this week, I was able to be in the right place at the right time," Epple said.
After two more interceptions by Young and a fumble recovery by freshman Liam Kirwan, the Duhawks put the icing on the cake when Carrier reached pay dirt from three yards out for his second touchdown of the day.
Jones put forth a strong performance from the pocket, connecting on 23 of his 36 passes for 267 yards. In all, Jones completed passes to eight different receivers. Sophomore Danny Willis led all receivers with 61 yards.
The offensive line paved the way for Carrier, who had flashbacks to his freshman season where he rushed for 1,210 yards, averaging more than 134 yards per game. Of Loras' five touchdowns, four of them came by way of the ground, a true testament to the effectiveness of the offensive line.
"The offensive line did amazing, and we just have so many playmakers on the field," Carrier said. "It opens it up for me and helps make my job easier."
Even with the Loras offense being as electric as it was on Saturday, the real stars of the game were on defense. Led by sophomore Calvin Harridge, who finished with nine tackles and one for loss, the Loras defense forced seven turnovers and corralled Camiliere in the backfield seven times. Junior JP Awe and sophomores Austin Epple and Damon Davies each recorded two sacks each.
All in all, seven different players on defense finished with five or more tackles.
"I don't know if there was so much anxiety or nerves for the guys in the season opener, as much as it was their excitement to show off their product," Associate Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Jake Olsen said. "They've worked extremely hard since January 1st."
Head Coach Steve Helminiak started his career as head coach at Loras with a win, and they players can sense that there is something special building within the Loras College football program.
"We felt it as soon as he took the reigns," Carrier said. "We knew something special was cooking, and I think we proved it today."
The Duhawks will be back in action next weekend as they travel to Menomonie, Wisconsin to take on the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The Blue Devils lost to Dakota Wesleyan on Saturday 23-19.
Game time is scheduled for 2 p.m. and can be viewed live via UW-Stout's athletic website.