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Second-half surge gives McKendree first win of the season

McKendree University erupted for 27 points in the second half on its way to a 34-28 victory Saturday afternoon at home over Northern Michigan University in the Bearcats’ 2018 season opener at Leemon Field.

Senior quarterback Reece Metcalf (Mount Carmel, Ill./Mount Carmel) threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns, while senior running back Preston Thompson (Hazel Crest, Ill./Tinley Park) had both a rushing and receiving TD to lead McKendree to its fifth season-opening win in the last six years. The Bearcats will take their 1-0 record on the road for the first time next Saturday to Frankfort, Ky., to take on Kentucky State University in a contest that will begin at 3 p.m.

“Overall I was happy that we were able to get the win,” said McKendree head coach Mike Babcock. “Obviously, with this being our first game it was not a perfect outing by any means. But we came up with some big plays on both sides of the ball when we needed them, and I feel like we found our footing in the second half. I was pleased to see some of our younger players step up and make some contributions, but we asked our veterans to step up and they did just that today.”

Junior defensive back Blake Benoist (O’Fallon, Mo./Fort Zumwalt West) registered a career-high 11 tackles from his strong safety position and also had an interception that led to McKendree’s final points of the afternoon. Junior linebacker Ricco Gipson (Godfrey, Ill./Alton) added seven stops, while sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Purnell (Dolton, Ill./Simeon) accounted for six tackles – all solos – in his first collegiate start for the Bearcats.

Northern Michigan (0-1) drew first blood with a touchdown late in the first quarter to take a 7-0 advantage. McKendree took the ensuing kickoff and ran the ball six times in the first seven plays before facing a third-and-seven from their own 48-yard line. Metcalf then lofted a ball over the Wildcats’ secondary and into the hands of junior wide receiver Matt Cole (Chicago, Ill./Curie), who beat the defender to the pylon for a 52-yard touchdown pass to get the Bearcats on the scoreboard. Sophomore kicker Josh Lazaro (Bradley, Ill./Bradley-Bourbonnais) added the extra point to help McKendree draw even at 7-7 just 46 seconds into the second quarter.

The tie stood until midway through the third quarter, when McKendree scored on its final five possessions of the day to pull out in front to stay. Lazaro began the spurt when he booted a 36-yard field goal to push McKendree to a 10-7 lead. Following a Northern Michigan punt, the Bearcats drove 71 yards in nine plays to extend the margin to 17-7. Senior wide receiver Jalyn Williams (Carbondale, Ill./Carbondale) caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from Metcalf with 28 seconds left in the period. After posting 130 yards of total offense in the first half against Northern Michigan, McKendree erupted for 172 yards in the third quarter alone.

The Wildcats scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to rally within 17-14 before the Bearcats struck again. Thompson took a screen pass from Metcalf and rambled 31 yards for a score with 13:05 to play. Lazaro’s point after stretched the McKendree lead back to 10 points at 24-14. A lengthy drive resulted in another Northern Michigan touchdown to get the visitors back within 24-21 with 6:43 remaining.

Thompson found the end zone once again on McKendree’s next possession as he added a 10-yard touchdown run to give the Bearcats a 31-21 cushion. Benoist then picked off a Northern Michigan pass and returned it 46 yards down to the Wildcats’ 11-yard line. Lazaro then capped the McKendree scoring with his second field goal of the day, a 29-yarder with just under a minute to play.

Sophomore running back Jace Franklin (Sherman, Ill./Williamsville) led the McKendree rushing attack with 89 yards on 13 carries. Senor wide receiver Josh Revay (Livermore, Calif.) posted a team-leading five receptions for 83 yards, while senior tight end Zach Bobos (Lowell, Ind./Lowell) had four grabs in the win.