The McKendree University football team used a pair of big plays from its defense in the closing minutes to post a 29-10 victory Saturday afternoon at Saint Joseph’s College.
The Bearcats turned a pair of interceptions into 13 points over the final 3:53 of play to pull away for the Great Lakes Valley Conference victory. McKendree improves to 5-1 overall and is now 3-1 in GLVC play. The Bearcats will be on the road again Saturday (Oct. 24) when they make the short trip down Interstate 44 to Rolla, Mo., for a league contest at Missouri S &T. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Bailey-Allgood Stadium.
With McKendree clinging to a 16-10 lead, Saint Joseph’s took possession following a Bearcats’ punt at its own 39-yard line with 4:09 to play. Two plays later, sophomore linebacker Austin Weltha stepped in front of a Pumas’ pass for his first interception of the season, which he promptly returned 45 yards for a touchdown. The subsequent two-point conversion attempt failed, giving McKendree a 22-10 advantage with 3:53 remaining.
On the first offensive play for Saint Joseph’s following the Weltha score, the McKendree defense came up with another takeaway. Senior defensive back Cruz Navarro came up with another interception and his 19-yard return put the ball at the Pumas’ 21-yard line. Three plays later, senior running back Treye Williams took a handoff and raced 15 yards for the score that sealed the victory for McKendree.
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“Our defense really stepped up and made the big plays when it counted,” said McKendree head coach Mike Babcock. “Those interceptions were big in their own right, but throughout the game it seemed like whenever we needed a play or needed a stop, somebody from our defense would step up and make that play. Overall, I thought it was a good effort bouncing back from our first loss of the season last week (a 34-24 setback against Indianapolis).”
Junior linebacker A.J. Wentland once again led the McKendree defensive effort with 11 tackles. Sophomore linebacker Kyle Kirkpatrick (Civic Memorial) added eight stops, while Weltha and Navarro contributed seven tackles apiece to go along with their interceptions. Senior defensive lineman Brett Pearman (Granite City) collected two of the Bearcats’ four quarterback sacks against Saint Joseph’s.
McKendree limited Saint Joseph’s to just 274 yards of offense, which is the lowest total by a Bearcats’ opponent this season. In addition, the 10 points allowed marks the fewest points scored by a McKendree foe since 2011, when the Bearcats registered a 24-9 win over Trinity International University at Leemon Field. It is also the fewest points given up by McKendree in a conference game since a 54-7 triumph against Waldorf College in a 2010 contest. Back then, the Bearcats were members of the Mid-States Football Association.
Junior kicker Steven O’Block booted a season-high three field goals, including a 42-yarder in the first quarter that put the Bearcats on the scoreboard. The 42-yard kick was the longest of the season for O’Block, who has converted all eight of his field goal tries in 2015.
Saint Joseph’s (3-4, 2-3 GLVC) grabbed a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter on a 35-yard touchdown run by quarterback Wade Burtron. McKendree answered on its next possession with O’Block’s 42-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 7-3. That score stood until the final minute of the first half. After junior defensive lineman Lucky Baar blocked a field goal attempt with four minutes left until the intermission, the Bearcats embarked on a 13-play, 80-yard drive to grab a 10-7 lead. Senior quarterback Isaac Fisher capped the drive with a two-yard scoring run, and O’Block’s point after gave McKendree a three-point lead heading into the intermission.
O’Block provided the Bearcats’ scoring in the third quarter thanks to a 27-yard field goal on the first drive of the second half and a 24-yarder midway through the period. Saint Joseph’s pulled within 16-10 with 6:59 left to play on a 42-yard field goal by Gavin Voss.
Sophomore running back Shayeen Edwards (Cahokia) led the McKendree rushing attack with a career-high 87 yards on 12 carries. Fisher added 55 yards on 15 attempts. Fisher also threw for a season-low 94 yards, completing 17-of-28 pass attempts. Sophomore receiver Dustin Walls hauled in a team-leading six receptions for the Bearcats.