Nearly a year ago to the day when a late fourth-quarter rally fell just short, the McKendree Bearcats weren’t about to let history repeat itself on a picture, perfect Saturday afternoon at Leemon Field.
One of the top combinations in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, senior quarterback Issac Fisher connected with senior wide receiver and former Edwardsville High School standout Cameron James on two fourth-quarter touchdown passes — including a go-ahead 26-yard scoring strike with 2 minutes and 28 seconds remaining — as McKendree (2-0) posted a dramatic 27-24 win over Northwood University.
Northwood (1-2), from Midland, Mich., which held off a late Bearcats rally a year ago to win 32-27 on its home field, appeared ready to make it two in a row against the Bearcats after an 18-yard scoring play from quarterback Mark Morris to Shane Barron gave it a 24-13 lead with 13:30 left in the game.
But James, who set a school record with his 106th career reception on the Bearcats first possession of the game, got behind the Northwood secondary and caught a 67-yard scoring strike from Fisher with 11:28 remaining, allowing McKendree to pull within 24-19.
Two possessions later, and following a great defensive series which was led by senior defensive back Cruz Navarro and juniors A.J. Wentland and Lucky Baar, the Bearcats got the ball back near midfield with just over four minutes remaining.
Fisher, who finished 29-of-44 for 370 yards and three touchdowns, moved the Bearcats inside the Northwood 30-yard-line, where on third-and-1 from the 26, he found James, again behind the defense, for the score.
“The coaches are always telling us that in those situatons, we’ve got to beat our guys one-on-one and I was fortunate to do that on the first play and it was really the same thing on the second touchdown pass as well,’’ James said. “Isaac (Fisher) did a great job of scrmabling out of the pocket on the second one. I just tried to get open and make a play.’’
Given the lead for the first time all day, the Bearcats defense wasn’t about to let it slip away as Baar, the 2014 GLVC Defensive Player of the Year, helped contain the Northwood offense which turned the ball over on downs.
“The defense came up with some big stops late in the game,’’ McKendree coach Mike Babcock said. “The first half, especially, we really had a tough time stopping their (Northwood’s) option offense. But after we made a few adjustments, I thought we did a better job and in the fourth quarter we forced them into doing things on offense that they weren’t comfortable doing.’’
The record breaker: James, who caught six passes for 112 yards, broke the receptions mark he shared with Dewayne Gatti, on an 8-yard catch early in the first quarter.
“Well, thank you. But to be honest about it I didn’t even realize it and I wasn’t thinking about it,’’ James said when asked about the record. “It’s very nice. But I am more concerned about helping this team win football games. This is a big win heading into conference play next week.’’
The progression plays worked: Babcock said both fourth-quarter touchdown passes came on similar plays and reads by his senior quarterback, who threw for over 300 yards for the fifth time in his career.
“They were both progression plays, meaning that if the first option (receiver) isn’t open, you look to the second one,’’ Babcock said. “Isaac (Fisher) made great reads and decisions on both plays and I thought Cameron did a good job of getting open.’’
Streaking Bearcats: The win is McKendree’s seventh straight over the past two years. The Bearcats won their final five games a year ago to finish at 5-6.
Game balls: Shining on offense for McKendree were Fisher and James, but they had plenty of help. Wide receiver Dustin Walls had six catches for 124 yards. Walls also had a 16-yard touchdown catch on a pass from Fisher in the second quarter. Sean Dowling had seven catches for 51 yards.
Wentland led the defense with 12 tackles. Navarro added nine and Austin Weltha and Tyler House added six tackles apiece.
Next up:McKendree opens GLVC play next Saturday at William Jewell College.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2661.